Amnesia… It is the classic soap opera plot. Usually it goes like this: The main character is on the verge of getting everything she or he wanted in life, but the show is not over so a terrible car [plane/bus/bicycle/stunt scooter] accident happens. The character wakes up in the hospital, alive but with no recollection of who he or she is. Cue the overly dramatic soundtrack.

There is a reason I don’t watch soap operas…  Plot twists like this are usually a sign of weak storytelling. Instead of having conflict that comes from within the characters, they throw an immense external obstacle at them. It usually feels forced and just makes me roll my eyes.

Unfortunately, primetime shows are not guilt-free when it comes to using this classic soapy plot twist. I can think of a few recent[ish] examples that really annoyed me:

  • Mike on Desperate Housewives S3. Remember? He and Susan were going to be happy until Eddie took advantage and made him believe she was his girl… OK…
  • Sarah on the last season of Chuck. I still believe the whole fairy tale kiss worked. Don’t you dare tell me otherwise!
  • Emily on the latest season of Revenge. At least that only lasted half an ep… and Revenge embraces its soap-opera-ness so I guess it is OK.
  • Even Alias annoyed me a little when Sydney couldn’t remember two years of her life. I let that one go because 1) They got some interesting storylines out of it [“So I became Julia Thorne”] 2) It was only 2 years she lost. She didn’t forget who she was or anything … Still I think I could have done without it.
  • And last but not least ALL THE DAMN VAMPIRE SHOWS

True Blood
I am more forgiving with “amnesia plots” when they are used in fantasy/sci-fi shows. But it is way OVERUSED on vampire shows. If anyone can be glammed [or compelled] at any moment it lowers the stakes… You know anything said or done can be taken back. I have this issue with The Vampire Diaries [and don’t even get me started on the “humanity switch”] and even True Blood. I felt the same way on Heroes when the Haitian just swooped in and conveniently wiped everybody’s memory.

I can actually handle memory loss on TV when it makes sense [in the universe of the show]. I recently wrote a paper about post-human characters and one of the common characteristics was experiencing some form of memory loss or memory tampering. In fact, memory manipulation is deeply rooted in science fiction as part of the posthuman characters’ journey towards finding their identity. So… I can respect the amnesia plot in this context, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t drive me slightly crazy!

Olivia forgetting Peter on Fringe made perfect sense given the previous events [Alternate universes colliding, timelines destroyed, evil machines restoring balance, etc etc] but it was SO painful to watch! I guess it even [sort of] made sense when they did it on Beauty and the Beast [it just wasn’t necessarily handled as it should]. I really didn’t want it to happen, but supersoldier kidnapped by his makers and retooled to be a killing machine? It practically screams memory manipulation if you think about it… (They did the same thing with some secondary characters on Dark Angel).

So… soap operas do it, primetime shows that are like soap operas unfortunately do it too. It is forgivable on sci-fi shows and overused on vampire shows. But… does it ever work?


I think amnesia can work as a device when it is an intrinsic part of the story rather than a cheap complication. Dollhouse was a show about people who volunteered to have their memories removed and replaced with a different set of “experiences” designed to please the clients [of “The Dollhouse”]. By definition, this show was about people with no memories. Bodies that served as empty vessels, but were they really? The conflict was created by the remnants of their true personalities trying to emerge. It was a great concept and it worked really well [until FOX cancelled it].

Amnesia is also what kickstarts the Bourne franchise and probably the BEST example of amnesia [or rather short-term memory loss] is the brilliant movie Memento. Here amnesia is used creatively to tell a disjointed story and come to a shocking conclusion.

So, as much as we look at “amnesia” like a cheap soap opera device, [when used well] it can be a part of the journey to self-discovery of the characters and even the source of brilliant narratives. As everything, it depends on the execution, so don’t automatically roll your eyes next time you hear someone say “Who am I?”
Share on Google Plus


The TV Empress is a Media Management graduate, screenwriter in the making (and financial engineer in the meantime). She has serious plans to take over global television. You can follow the TVEmpress on twitter @TVRepublik

    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment


Post a Comment

Add your Comment Here