Frequency – A Show Don’t Tell Masterclass

Make no mistake – Frequency is not a perfect show. It’s not the best show airing right now. But it might be the best new show of the season. The actors are not going to win awards, although they’re solid enough, and for the most part I think the writers take the show more seriously than anyone else ever will.

But it does one thing right, and that’s – you guessed it – show don’t tell.

The basic premise of Frequency is that detective Julie Sullivan, a modern day NYPD detective, lost her father Frank Sullivan, also an NYPD detective, at an early age. Then an old HAM radio is struck by lightning, allowing it to communicate with itself 20 years in the past. More to the point, allowing Julie to speak with her father shortly before he dies. The two quickly set out to use cross-time communication to save Frank’s life and fight for justice!

The wonkiness of the plot was enough to intrigue me into watching the pilot. The ability of the pilot to pack information into a single episode convinced me to stay, at least for this season. Frequency manages incredible information density through show don’t tell in three specific areas. First, in establishing the show’s split time periods. Second, in establishing that the linked timeframes are synchronous (and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second). Third, in showing causality and chaos there. And it does all of this without an exposition dump or unwieldy “sciency” character. Not that such characters are always bad, but putting one in this story probably wouldn’t have served the plot very well.

Let’s start with the way the show frames itself. The story has two timeframes, 2016 and 1996, both of which are established before they cross paths. The modern era is established by just showing us things that we take for granted – modern cars, smartphones and current music. The past is a little trickier, but still pretty easy to do. We see Frank watching the 1996 World Series as he’s first introduced and, a little while later, we see former President Clinton on TV at some kind of official function where the announcer introduces him as the leader of the free world – implying that he is, in fact, the president at the time. Add in little things like CRT TVs and out of date cars and it’s pretty easy to make a rough estimate of the time period. Of course, there’s also Julie herself, who we see as a young girl in this era, and who’s birthdays – eighth and twenty-eighth – are mentioned as touchstones to hammer down the exact timing shortly before the first father and daughter cross-time talk.

The second thing established is how events in 1996 and 2016 are synchronous, and until Frank does something new in his era Julie won’t see the results of it in hers. We see this in two separate incidents. The first is probably the most ingenious. When Julie and Frank first speak Frank is so weirded out he sets his cigar down and misses the ashtray. It burns a hole through the wooden top of the HAM radio – a hole Julie sees appearing in her time in real time. The hole has not always been there, as it would be in some time travel stories, it appears before Julie’s eyes as she’s watching and she asks about it, prompting Frank to pick the cigar up and put it back in the ashtray then brush the coals off the top of the radio. The hole stops growing in Julie’s time period. In much the same way, Julie labors under the impression her father is dead until the moment that history changes and her father’s life is saved.

Finally, the show demonstrates causality and the “butterfly effect” not by having someone explain it to Julie but by having her live it. After saving her father’s life she hurries to keep a date with her fiance and his parents only to find that he doesn’t have any idea who she is. Then she discovers that her mother is dead – the result of her going to the hospital to visit Frank there after he survives the shooting that should have killed him. In the process she becomes the target of a serial killer rather than the victim he had originally selected. Again, this is a sequence we see happen and it drives home that this is the consequence of what Julie and Frank did far more than just hearing about it.

With all this basic, world building exposition happening along side of the character building dialog the first episode of Frequency does an amazing job of establishing the world, it’s rules and the people who we’re going to watch play by them in the confines of the forty three minutes most network TV shows have to work with. It’s worth watching for the pure craftsmanship even if you don’t like time travel or police procedurals. What’s more, most of what the show does would only work on the screen, meaning the writers were giving careful consideration to how best they could use their medium, which many writers neglect. All together this makes the pilot alone worth watching, even if you choose to pass on the rest of the series. Don’t deprive yourself.

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