~posted by Library Staff
In last week’s post, we looked at movies that use reverse chronology—telling their stories in backwards order. This device has also been used to great effect in several TV shows.
The most famous example is “The Betrayal,” an episode of Seinfeld in which a series of romantic misadventures unfold in reverse order. The title is a nod to Harold Pinter, whose play and film Betrayal also use reverse chronology. One of the characters is actually named “Pinter,” revealing that this Seinfeld episode was conceived as a sly homage to the Nobel-prize-winning author. With backwards time-jumps spanning everything from three seconds to eleven years, this is one of the cleverest examples of reverse chronology in all of film and TV. Throughout are visual gags and “backwards jokes” that exploit the time reversal device: for example, Kramer eats a lollypop that gets progressively larger as the scenes move back in time, while Jerry says “bless you” to Elaine in one scene and the next scene (taking place a few seconds earlier) shows Elaine sneezing!
Airing during Seinfeld’s final season, this episode is an especially creative example of the unconventional structure that was a hallmark of the entire series. Writers David Mandel and Peter Mehlman have said that they relished playing with time and “backward-izing” events while working on the script, something that they couldn’t have done in a more traditional (or less successful) sitcom. In addition to being hilarious, this episode was also widely influential: for example, the device of showing the closing credits at the beginning and the opening credits at the end was used in the movie Irréversible. And on the DVD of the show, you can watch the Seinfeld episode in non-reversed order, a special feature that was later offered on some DVD editions of the movie Memento.
The Seinfeld episode also inspired several other TV shows to explore reverse chronology. In the ER episode “Hindsight,” for example, we first see the final outcomes of various patients as well as personal events in the lives of the doctors; we then travel back in time over the course of the episode, revealing what led to those outcomes. An unusual form of reverse chronology is employed in an episode of the X-Files titled “Redrum” (“Murder” spelled backwards, as in The Shining). Rather than being simply an editorial technique, the reversal is actually experienced by one of the characters who moves backwards in time while everybody else is moving forwards. Imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, the character experiences “yesterdays” as “tomorrows” and thus comes to understand what led to his false conviction. A similar type of reversal is found in The Star Trek Voyager episode, “Before & After.” A woman from the planet Ocampa experiences events in reverse as a result of radiation poisoning, so that her “memories” are actually of events in the future.
Check out some of these backwards TV shows and movies for yourself, and you’ll discover that… Hctaw ot nuf si ygolonorhc esrever!