[SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses recent plot details from Westworld, American Horror Story, The Exorcist and The Walking Dead. Read at your own risk.]
Have we as a culture moved past the place where narrative twists delight us? Are we so jaded, spoiled even, by the embarrassment of riches that is this golden age of TV? If so, somebody had better tell programming execs quickly before they twist and turn themselves out of business.
To wit: Just two weeks ago, the fifth episode of Fox's reboot of The Exorcist aired, and without much fanfare, it dropped a major narrative bomb: Angela Rance (Geena Davis) revealed that she had actually changed her name from... Regan MacNeil, aka the kid from the original Exorcist film. That's pretty exciting stuff, but unfortunately nobody watched. Even by Friday night standards, the ratings were bad (1.9 million viewers with a 0.7 in the demo).
But what if Fox had resisted the urge to rely on a twist, capitalized on the past popularity of its intellectual property and let viewers know that Davis was playing Regan from the get-go? Would more people have tuned in to see how that tortured young woman confronted adulthood? Perhaps. Instead, Fox chose to distance its show from the head-spinning, pea-soup-spewing imagery of yore and keep Angela's true identity a secret until Episode 5, at which point it's too late to get anyone to start watching a new show.
We've come a long way when it comes to surprising narratives. Remember how much fun we all had watching Lost? Each twisty new episode brought forth a fuselage full of answers and a raft of burning questions that helped us tip-toe toward the crux of the show's central mystery. Along the way, the obvious answer was never the answer; there was always more to it. Well, it's been more than six years since the series finale aired and no subsequent TV show has surpassed its legacy of well-crafted mystery. Nothing has recaptured that feeling of aimless excitement. Many have tried; many are still trying.
Two of the most innovative shows on TV are still betting on twists and turns. Ryan Murphy, for one, said that he wanted the sixth season of FX's American Horror Story to break the mold he had established of (mostly) expected horrors. And it did, when the sixth episode of the season took a sharp turn away from its true-crime re-enactment show origins straight through the fourth wall toward a found-footage horror tale in which almost everyone - including the re-enactors — died. HBO's Westworld has unfurled an epic narrative that posits juicy questions about what it means to be human, but recent plot developments have hinted that we're watching at least two narrative timelines. Twist!
Here's the difference: Many anticipated those shows' potential respective twists with a sense of foreknowledge and exhaustion: "Oh God, please don't let it be that."
It's true that our national viewing habits have shifted away from such gimmicks (flash-forwards are so 2004) and toward more trenchant, character-based morality plays like Game of Thrones, Empire and The Walking Dead. The latter show, in fact, just began its seventh season with what you might call an anti-twist: After a protracted, between-seasons guessing game about who would meet the business end of Negan's barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, it was Glenn who died... in exactly the same manner as he did in the show's graphic novel source material. On a show about a zombie apocalypse, perhaps there is already enough uncertainty.
Genuinely surprising twists and turns will continue to entertain (see: Netflix's anthology Black Mirror), but maybe it's time we all took a step back (we have to go baaaaack) to appreciate how difficult it must be, in this post-Lost world, to trick us.