HBO’s Enlightened just ended its second season, which eclipsed season one in quality and will likely end up on many critics’ year-end lists. Todd VanDerWerff eloquently laid out many of the reasons for that show’s qualitative leap this season, so restating them would be redundant. But one of the reasons Enlightened turned from “interesting” to “must-see” is that it deployed an old trope, one that explains why many people watch, enjoy, and obsess over television shows in general.
Enlightened went from good to great at the exact time it started taking the spotlight off Laura Dern’s protagonist, Amy Jellicoe, and shifting the focus to secondary or tertiary characters. That didn’t simply lighten Dern’s workload for a given week; these extended glimpses into the lives of Amy’s mother, ex-husband, and co-worker expanded Enlightened’s meaning. The show was never merely about Amy’s revelations from rehabilitation; it’s about how her attempts to spread those revelations affect those around her. Whether viewers understand it consciously or not, Enlightened is told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator—Amy at first, then others.
This wasn’t done in an effort to pad out Enlightened’s seasons. So far, the show has only produced 18 episodes, three of which barely feature Amy. Percentage-wise, that’s a lot of narrative real estate to afford secondary characters. But when the show was Amy-centric, viewers couldn’t fully see the extent to which her actions affected those around her. Spending a day with her mother, Helen (Diane Ladd), made the true nature of the chasm between the pair clearer. Following Levi (Luke Wilson) to Hawaii clarified the heartbreak he experienced when he returned home. Getting inside the head of Amy’s co-worker Tyler (series co-creator Mike White) let viewers understand the joys and terrors of prolonged exposure to Amy’s newfound drive.
The amazing thing isn’t that Enlightened spent so much time taking trips down these side streets; it’s more surprising that more shows don’t do this. Staring down the barrel of a 22-episode order can be daunting for any showrunner. (Filling a 13- or 10-episode order isn’t exactly a picnic, either.) Enlightened’s second season only featured eight, but the two spent outside Amy’s world were crucial to the season’s objectives. These were episodes designed not to push the plot forward, but to meditate on the show’s themes. Since meditation (communicated via voiceovers that are sometimes thrilling and sometimes horrifyingly unaware) is key to Enlightened’s world, these episodes aren’t about delaying the inevitable so much as focusing on the present. They’re about the presence of the present, about people acknowledging their place in the grander schemes of society and history. Above all, they’re about connection, or at least the attempt to connect.
Plenty of TV episodes end with fans complaining that nothing happened, sometimes justifiably, but these Enlightened episodes are the opposite of nothing. In terms of what makes television work well as a medium, they’re almost everything. Episodes that shift focus away from normalcy often illuminate the show’s themes much more effectively. There’s a difference between plot (what happens) and story (why it matters), and even though these episodes don’t usually push the plot along, the best ones elevate the story to new, exciting, unexpected places.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s third-season installment “The Zeppo” is a great example. Xander Harris, the show’s Everyman, gets to be the hero, even though Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang are too busy fighting an impending apocalypse to notice. The episode only offers glimpses of what, in normal Buffy-centric perspective, would be the main plot thrust. The potentially cataclysmic events occur almost entirely offscreen, and the few onscreen glimpses are more comical than terrifying. But Xander’s journey mirrors one of the show’s central themes: The world is on the verge of destruction at all times, and those who prevent it often go unnoticed or unthanked. It’s the same basic story, but the perspective shift makes it feel fresh, and it also helps viewers understand actions that otherwise go unnoticed or simply unappreciated.
Sometimes these secondary-character episodes complicate, rather than augment, a show’s themes. Heroes’ season-one standout “Company Man” not only provides backstory on the mysterious “HRG,” but also it further blurs the line between right and wrong in the show’s moral universe. When Scrubs shifts focus from J.D.’s narration toward the janitor’s (in the first three installments of the “His Story” quadrilogy), it explains what the janitor does all day and filters the central characters through a less flattering prism. Over on Breaking Bad, the fourth-season episode “Hermanos” turns the show’s unflappable, seemingly unfeeling villain into a recognizably human individual not terribly removed from Walter White as he appeared in the pilot. Audiences who spent years wondering when Walter might finally topple Gus Fring were suddenly offered the chance to root for the villain in his quest to avenge the loss of a loved one.
None of these episodes waste viewers’ time, because they all serve story beyond plot. When absorbed and analyzed over the course of several years, plots almost inevitably let an audience down. Some drag out too long, some have poor payoffs, some don’t hold up under scrutiny, and some have endings that are visible from a country mile away. (Paging the sixth season of Dexter.) But stories, by contrast, are messy and have built-in contradictions that are not only allowable, but even necessary. Episodes that highlight the supporting players enrich the world the protagonists inhabit. They can play out anecdotes instead of relaying them briefly in conversation. They can establish context less awkwardly than exposition. They may slow the plot in the short term, but they improve the story over the long haul.
People evolve. They regress. They change. They adapt. Spending time watching that roller-coaster ride unfold is the opposite of watching nothing happening. No one on BTVS knew Xander’s role in “The Zeppo,” but viewers did, which affected their understanding of his character and helped deepen certain interactions without making him spell out his reasons. Knowing more about a character is almost never a bad thing, but the current dominance of plot over story dictates that character knowledge happens almost by accident rather than design in most long-form, serialized narratives.
That isn’t to say secondary-character episodes are inherently perfect. Lost featured two in its final season: the Richard Alpert-centric “Ab Aeterno” and the Jacob/Man In Black saga “Across The Sea.” Lost fooled many people (and sometimes itself) into thinking it was about plot rather than story. But in withholding the backstories of these nominally important characters for so long, Lost actually deprived itself of what could have been interesting long-term examinations of the nature of sin, regret, and familial guilt. Keeping the origin stories secret didn’t serve Lost’s story; it served the plot, which by the sixth season was so weighed down by loose threads, contradictions, and sheer complexity that it ultimately became beside the point entirely. There’s plenty of richness in that final season, and it has nearly nothing to do with the true identity of Adam and Eve in that cave.
Would those origin-story episodes have worked better earlier in the show’s run? Such Monday-morning quarterbacking seems pointless, but nothing would have been lost if those episodes been excised. Learning about Richard’s apparent immortality informed viewers’ understanding of the past, but did little to assist any understanding of him in the show’s present-day timeline. Keeping Jacob and The Man In Black shrouded in secrecy fueled viewers’ imaginations at the time, but for people binge-watching the series now, that choice distracts from the show’s main attraction: the passengers of Flight 815, who forged a place for themselves through their time together on the island. Their plot wasn’t always clean, concise, or consistent. But their story, started long before they crashed and continuing long after they left the island, was beautiful from start to finish. In print form, Lost’s plot would look like the novel House Of Leaves. But Lost’s story is elegantly simple: They lived together so none had to die alone. The end.
Plot is clever and often surprising. But few things surprise more than a non-obvious choice to a complex problem that doesn’t directly serve the plot. Understanding when to deviate from the established path is key for any show’s long-term success. It’s a scary proposition, but it can yield impressive entertainment. It isn’t just the show’s perspective that changes when it examines its world through a new set of eyes: The viewers’ perspective can change as well. There are stories everywhere. We not only need to know where to look, but how to look as well.