“And no one will ever mention it again, under penalty of torture”: 21 forgotten TV subplots
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1. Landry the killer, Friday Night Lights
Having survived its ratings-challenged first season on the tenuous strength of kind reviews and a passionate (if limited) following, Friday Night Lights was in the compromising position of needing to improve its numbers to survive. And compromise it did, in the notorious first episode of season two, when Landry (Jesse Plemons), the show’s endearingly awkward brainiac (and Crucifictorious frontman), protects his eternal crush Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) from an assault by clocking her attacker over the head, killing him. The two then heave the body into the river and spend the subsequent episodes trying to keep their secret hidden from their friends, their families, and the authorities. From the writers’ point of view, the subplot solved two problems simultaneously: It provided NBC the dramatic sweeps hook it needed while also giving two characters on the periphery of the Dillon High School football team something to do. But critics immediately assailed the plot as a crude ratings ploy that both reeked of executive interference and existed far outside the show’s subtle evocation of small-town life. Once the Landry subplot was wrapped up—redeemed at least partly by Plemons and Palicki’s strong performances—his killer past was never brought up again, a tacit acknowledgment that the writers regretted ever taking the show in that direction. And the strike-shortened season two regrets didn’t stop there, either: Matt Saracen’s torrid affair with his grandma’s sexy nurse Carlotta ends abruptly when she goes back to Guatemala, and the trials of a young convict-turned-linebacker named Santiago are also banished from memory.
2. Luke and Laura, General Hospital
Charles and Di weren’t the only super-couple to get hitched in 1981. That year, the wedding of Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura Spencer (Genie Francis) on General Hospital would draw 30 million viewers—a viewing record for a daytime soap that has yet to be broken. So pervasive was Luke-and-Laura fever that Elizabeth Taylor agreed to guest-star in five episodes, including the famous wedding. Now that the daytime soap opera faces almost-certain extinction, Luke and Laura’s pop-cultural ubiquity seems virtually unfathomable, but maybe the weirdest part of their romance is how it began. Two years before the blockbuster wedding, Luke raped Laura on the floor of a disco (to the sounds of Herb Alpert, no less). Against all odds—and in questionable taste—the attack blossomed into a romance. It’s a pesky detail that many die-hard “L&L” fans would probably like to forget.
3. The strange case of Tori Scott, Saved By The Bell
On the outskirts of Bayside, there are vast, unmarked mass graves filled with characters who briefly played a central role at Bayside High School, then mysteriously vanished, never to be spoken of again. Dating any of the show’s principal cast all but guaranteed you’d disappear by the subsequent episode, while even relatives weren’t safe: Ask A.C. Slater’s younger sister J.B., doomed the second Zack Morris fell for her, or Jessie Spano’s asshole stepbrother Eric, who earned his way into the good graces of the Bayside gang, only to be permanently dispatched the second everyone was safely off-screen. But among those who shall not be named—including the homeless family the Morrisses adopted for Christmas and the entire population of the Malibu Sands beach resort—perhaps no one cuts such a tragic figure as Tori Scott, Bayside’s forgotten daughter. Tori’s regrettable fate can be blamed on a higher power: When NBC ordered more episodes of the show’s already-wrapped senior year, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley were already committed to other projects. So, employing its signature logic, Saved By The Bell allowed the characters to disappear completely, bringing in Leanna Creel’s motorcycle-riding tomboy Tori to replace them—and thus creating the “Tori Reality,” a parallel universe centered on Zack and Tori’s awkward courtship, a place where Kelly and Jessie simply did not exist. Of course, the season’s mixed-up production order also meant that almost as soon as Tori arrived to upset the natural order, she was gone forever, excluded from Bayside’s graduation ceremonies to join the ranks of all those Saved By The Bell left behind. At least she had plenty of company.
4. Walt being potentially “special,” Lost
Damon Lindelof has said on many occasions that he never expected Lost to last a full year of television, never mind six. But while he and co-executive producer Carlton Cuse managed to spin more than a half-decade of head-spinning mythology out of nothing, there was one thing even The Island couldn’t change: the real-time aging of Malcolm David Kelley. Kelley played Walt Lloyd, a figure central to the show’s inaugural season who was kidnapped at the end of it. What functioned as a shocking cliffhanger also served to mask a central tension between the narrative scope of the show and the real-world implications of filming it. That first season only covered 44 days of island time, and later seasons condensed its scope even further. That’s fine for adult actors, but not for those going through puberty. Even with the way the show played with time (and time travel), it couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate one of the most potent supernatural figures of the first season into its overall narrative. Here was a kid who could kill birds with his brain and managed to give Ben Linus more than he could handle. And yet the nature of his “special” nature never amounted to more than fan conjecture. Other mystical elements such as frozen donkey wheels and magic pools of light got plenty of screen time in later seasons. But in the brief instances in which Walt re-emerged onscreen toward the end of the show’s run, what made him such a fascinating companion to John Locke had been stripped away.
5. Sydney’s eggs, Alias
The third season of Alias was highly ambitious, aiming to fill in two missing years in the memory of its main character, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner). By the season’s midpoint, however, fans were frustrated with how diffuse the storyline had become. Enter “Full Disclosure,” an episode designed to fill in just where Sydney was all that time. Near its end, Sydney learns that the ancient scientist and prophet Rambaldi had imagined a way to produce a mini-Rambaldi by harvesting some poor woman’s eggs. Syd, hearing this, looks down to see… a telltale scar on her abdomen. There’s a mission to destroy the group’s facility, but the episode heavily implies that Syd’s eggs are going to result in some tiny Rambaldi spawn before long, something the show never brings up again. (Harvested eggs are a frequently forgotten TV subplot, though at least Battlestar Galactica, which used this trick with character Starbuck, referenced the event obliquely through the years.)
6. The Earp Brothers, Deadwood
David Milch shows are full of winding rabbit trails that the TV auteur briefly found fascinating, then completely abandoned without another thought. His greatest achievement, Deadwood, is no exception. The show’s most obviously abandoned subplot is the strange tale of the Earp brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, who come to town, ostensibly to look over a timber claim. Suspicion mounts that the villainous George Hearst might be employing the pair, but it soon becomes clear that, no, they’re just there to look over a timber claim. The series had moved past its Western roots so thoroughly at this point that it never seemed to know what to do with more traditional Western heroes, so the Earps—after a brief, one-sided gunfight with another man—left town after just two episodes, never to be spoken of again.
7. Alan Birch dies, Chicago Hope
Shortly after Chicago Hope won him an Emmy and made him a household name, Mandy Patinkin got wandering eyes and somehow persuaded the show’s producers to let him out of his contract just eight episodes into its second season. But in order to write out the show’s main character believably, creator David E. Kelley had to come up with a trauma that would make Patinkin’s cocky Jeffrey Geiger question everything. Chicago Hope had its fair share of extraneous characters, so Kelley just tossed a likable one—Peter MacNicol’s Alan Birch—into the midst of a mugging gone wrong and had him get shot. Geiger couldn’t save Birch, leading him to proclaim the whole situation “unacceptable,” and giving Patinkin a believable out that would also allow him to return every time the show’s producers wanted someone around to sing. Geiger even had the good sense to adopt Birch’s baby daughter, tying up even more loose ends. But while the gang at the hospital really liked Birch, outside of a few mentions here and there through the years, they mostly seemed to forget he existed as soon as Geiger walked out of their lives, making them seem pretty callous—or perhaps the victims of a far-too-elaborate plot device.
8. Dick Tremayne and Little Nicky, Twin Peaks
With the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer solved early in Twin Peaks’ second season, the writers of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal, supernatural thriller scrambled to find a plot as compelling as that once-central mystery. Somewhere between Nadine’s super-powered high-school flashback, the mayor’s wedding, and James Hurley’s out-of-town cuckolding, local plaid-clad dandy Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan) took an interest in Little Nicky (Joshua Harris), an orphan and victim of “persistent, random misfortune.” Though introduced as a way for Tremayne to show his paternal instincts to pregnant paramour Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson), Nicky soon became the center of a side mystery involving the death of any and all adults who’ve taken an interest in him. After some bumbled sleuthing on the part of Tremayne and Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), Nicky’s potentially pathological nature was explained away by a Doc Hayward monologue, and the series turned to matters of greater import—like Benjamin Horne’s lengthy, increasingly detailed American Civil War hallucination.
9. Julien’s gay lifestyle, The Shield
In keeping with The Shield’s persistent exploration of moral codes in conflict, early on in the series, the writers introduced the idea that the deeply religious young LAPD officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) was wrestling with his homosexuality—and frequently losing the fight. The show’s antihero Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) used his knowledge of Julien’s sexuality against him, and at one point other members of the squad discovered Julien’s secret and beat him up. But then Julien took his problems to his pastor, who put him through conversion therapy, and eventually, Julien met a woman and got married. The Shield never pretended that the character had been “cured.” (There was a brief subplot about his troubles in the bedroom with his wife, for example.) But like another fan-favorite Shield plot—Dutch Wagenbach’s attempt to understand the mentality of serial killers by choking a stray cat to death—Julien’s sexual/spiritual troubles had served their thematic purpose, and apparently weren’t anything creator Shawn Ryan and company had any interest in pursuing further.
10. The “super-villains” of season three, Heroes
Complaining about anything to do with NBC’s Heroes beyond the superhero drama’s first season feels more than a little like flogging a dead horse, so often did the Internet sink its collective claws into the series for failing to live up to the promise of its premise. Still, the series committed the sin of abandoning of storylines with alarming frequency. None proved quite so frustrating for viewers, however, as when the show’s producers introduced one of the great comic-book devices—a cadre of escaped super-villains, described by Angela Petrelli (Cristine Rose) as being at least as bad as Sylar (Zachary Quinto), possibly even worse—only to let it fall completely by the wayside. Although 12 villains managed to escape from their cells within the bowels of The Company, the focus quickly shifted away from the escapees and onto Angela’s not-as-deceased-as-once-believed husband, Arthur Petrelli, played by Robert Forster. Although it was undeniably enjoyable to see Forster having fun as a bad guy, the change in emphasis left the fates of several reputed bad-asses unresolved, leaving viewers to presume that they continue to enjoy their freedom to this day.
11. Susan Sarandon kidnaps Franco’s daughter, Rescue Me
Rescue Me is littered with dead subplots—to the point where the show actually made fun of how many forgotten plot points it had in one of its final episodes—but none made less sense than consummate ladies’ man Franco (Daniel Sunjata) falling into a pseudo-relationship with older woman Alicia (Susan Sarandon), which abruptly ends when she takes his kid. Since the little girl wasn’t legally Franco’s daughter (in that he’d had her with a former girlfriend who never petitioned to make him the father), the show was able to suggest that Alicia could take the girl off to an elite boarding school and Franco would eventually decide things were better that way. He never really spoke of his flesh-and-blood again, because that’s exactly how an ostensibly caring father would act: He’d forget his now-gone daughter entirely.
12. The faceless alien rebels, The X-Files
To be perfectly accurate, this subplot wasn’t “forgotten” so much as “completely lost beneath all of the other stuff going on in the alien conspiracy storyline on The X-Files.” But it still seemed like something that might have, y’know, come up at a later point. In a mid-season five episode, Mulder and Scully are closing in on the truth about just why the aliens have so much interest in Earth: They want to invade, duh. But just as the aliens are calling former abductees, including Scully, to return to be experimented upon, the scene is interrupted by men with no faces, who promptly start setting all of the abductees on fire. Turns out there’s an intergalactic war at hand, one where forces within the alien coalition have turned against the plan to subjugate Earth and are now fighting back via any means necessary (including killing the aliens’ experimentation stock). It’s clearly a Hail Mary move by a show running out of ways to tell its story without explaining everything, but you’d still think an intergalactic war centered on Earth would end up having slightly more impact than it does (which is none at all).
13. “The Pattern,” Fringe
Remember the first season of Fringe? The show runners would likely prefer that you didn’t. Not only has John Scott (Mark Valley) been as erased from its history as Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) currently is, but the central mythology upon which the show was based has been largely ditched. “The Pattern” served as the hook upon which the show hung its first-season procedural episodes. No matter how unrelated each case of the week was, someone could tie it to The Pattern as a way of presenting an unfolding mosaic. Here’s the problem: The Pattern was dreadfully dull. Realizing this, Fringe phased out The Pattern over the course of its second and subsequent seasons. Sure, characters make oblique references to it now and then, and you could argue that the inter-dimensional struggle that now envelops the show is a continuation, not a negation, of The Pattern. But just compare everything before Olivia (Anna Torv) went Over There and everything after. The differences are striking. Too many shows dig their heels into a bad idea long after they realize how misguided it is. Kudos to Fringe for recognizing a better idea and pouring its strengths into the new concept rather than plowing along with a dud. That’s the type of pattern that more shows should embrace.
14. Virus attack on President Palmer, 24
Each season of 24 took place over a single day. While characters can reference events from the past, there aren’t any flashbacks, and there definitely aren’t any flash-forwards. This made the show unique, but it also made for some extremely silly plotting. The fact that each season couldn’t show anything past its self-imposed time limit meant that events outside the 24-hour period could be left to viewers’ imaginations. Still, the show did leave at least one obvious thread hanging. At the end of the second season, after Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the CTU have made the world safe for shouting again, President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) gets a handshake from a young woman while making his way to an awaiting limousine. The woman is Mandy (Mia Kirshner), an assassin-for-hire who hadn’t been seen on the show since the first season, who passes an apparently life-threatening virus to Palmer before disappearing into the crowd. The president collapses, and the season ends without any clue about what her plan was (besides the obvious), or if Palmer will survive. The show’s third season takes place three years after season two. Palmer is alive and well, but apart from some scars on his hand, there’s no reference to the incident. While season three dealt with a biological weapon threat, that weapon didn’t have any connection to the attack at the end of season two. It’s in keeping with 24’s nature that plot points are as disposable and renegotiable as any given character’s motivation, but rarely was that treatment more egregious.
15. Foreman’s near-death experience, House
Of all the dramatic series with a reputation for being “good TV,” few are as devoted as House to the motto, “This didn’t work, so we’re pretending it never happened.” This is a show where the hero once got shot at close range by some guy we’d never seen before and was scarcely mentioned again, aside from the throwaway information that he was still at large. And Foreman, the member of House’s diagnostic team played by Omar Epps, has more than his fair share of aborted subplots and story arcs stashed in his locker. Foreman’s big star turn came in the two-part episode “Euphoria,” where he contracts a mysterious fatal disease that threatens to attack his gray matter. Foreman doesn’t want to die, but he’s almost as concerned about having his brain affected to the point that it would hinder his ability to do his job. At the end of the episode, Foreman lives, and as everyone gathers around his hospital bed to wish him well, House (Hugh Laurie) calls for a simple test to check his brain function, and the mood suddenly turns ominous and cliffhanger-ish as the results confirm that his brain has been affected. How badly? We may never know, because it never really came up again.
16. Lesbian affair, L.A. Law
As the steam started to go out of L.A. Law, its producers tried to heat things up again by adding vampy British actress Amanda Donohoe to the cast, then threw caution to the wind by having her plant a kiss on the tremulous lips of her mousiest colleague, played by Michele Green. Within a week, caution reasserted itself, and the show backed away at top speed from what it had started, with Donohoe assuring Greene that she liked men and women (a swinging bisexual is presumably less threatening to the average viewer than a fully committed lesbian) and that the kiss had been an act of temporary madness that would never be repeated. Damned if this didn’t start a trend, and before long, TV critics were totting up the “lesbian kiss” moments in such shows as Roseanne, Friends, Picket Fences, and others, many of which brought special celebrity guest stars onboard just to kiss a series regular before being released back into the wild. The underlying assumption was that a sensationalistic same-sex kiss between women could mean ratings gold, so long as only one side meant it and it never happened again.
17. Body-snatching-alien conspiracy, Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation tended to deliver its outer-space storytelling in episode-sized chunks. Near the end of the show’s rocky first season, though, the writers wrote the first chapter of what was intended to be a long-term storyline about conspiracy amid the highest ranks of Starfleet. In the episode—titled “Conspiracy”—Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and crew discover that a number of top admirals and other officers have been infested by mind-controlling alien parasites. The alien hosts act similar to your average Starfleet Joe, except that they have superhuman strength, a taste for mealworms, and weird insect-y things on the back of their necks (because no aliens-took-my-body story is complete without creepy appendages). At the end of the episode, the defeated mother parasite sends a homing signal to a far-off point in the galaxy, implying that the battle has only begun. Yet the conspiracy is never mentioned again, which suggests that it either fizzled out or was completely successful. In reality, the show’s creators simply decided to abandon the lame alien-infestation schlock as TNG became a more modern and sophisticated affair. Despite the fact that it was a narrative dead end, “Conspiracy” is still remembered for giving viewers one of the goriest scenes in Trek history, the disembowelment of Lieutenant Commander Remmick.
18. Sam’s election, The West Wing
The West Wing was a show so famous for having important characters drop off the face of the earth that fans coined a name for where they all ended up: “Mandyville,” after season one regular Mandy (Moira Kelly) simply ceased to be in year two. But the weirdest example was the departure of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe). Sure, it wasn’t out of nowhere, with several episodes devoted to his against-the-odds run for office in a conservative California district. But after all that, we never found out if Sam won (although it seems unlikely) and his name was more or less never spoken again on the show until he finally returned in the final episodes. Even then, viewers were left to figure out that he lost, since there’s no explicit mention of the race. It’s almost as if the show’s writers, which by then did not include Aaron Sorkin, thought the election plot was a contrived way to rid the show of Rob Lowe, who reportedly asked to leave over disputes with the network and his reduced role.
19. Furio’s romance with Carmela, The Sopranos
The brooding, fearsome enforcer Furio Giunta is mostly a background character in the second and third seasons of The Sopranos, after Tony picked him up on a trip to Italy. But he got a plot of his own in the show’s fourth season, a slow-burn, unconsummated romance with Carmela that builds as her marriage to Tony begins to falter. The show explored interesting ground in the contrast between Furio’s scary mafia persona and his more charming way with women, and the breakdown of his previously ironclad loyalty to Tony is great to watch—the scene where he contemplates shoving his boss into helicopter blades is something else. But after a while he goes back to Italy, we’re told, and that’s the end of that, although Tony promises he’ll have hell to pay if he shows up again. The Sopranos frequently left plot strands dangling, to the consternation of some fans, like the missing Russian of the classic “Pine Barrens” episode. But Furio’s story, especially after building up for a whole season, seems less deliberately unresolved, and more like the writers decided there was nowhere further to take it. Even if that’s true, it was so jarringly scrubbed out that it led to rumors Furio would make a grand return with each new season. He never did.
20. Leslie Knope’s flirtation with Mark Brendanawicz, Parks And Recreation
In many ways, it feels like the writers of Parks And Recreation took a mulligan after the first season, and did what needed to be done to take their show to the next level. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) transformed from an earnest-but-dim Michael Scott clone to a woman who strives for quality in government and life. Her obsession with turning the pit next to Ann Perkins’ (Rashida Jones) house into a park, as well as the project itself, faded away when the town shut down due to a budgetary lapse. But the subplot from the first season that got dropped hardest was Leslie’s one-time dalliance with—and subsequent crush on—Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider). The storyline figured prominently in the first season, mainly to give Leslie some sort of unrequited romance. But by the second season, the two were more or less just good pals around the office, their previous relationship mentioned only when Ann asked Leslie for permission to start dating Mark. Once that couple got together, the entire Leslie-Mark story was dropped, and then Mark was later dropped altogether.
21. The “real” Seymour Skinner, The Simpsons (1997)
The question at the core of this Inventory is this: Can television shows successfully discard their own histories? Or more to the point, can they expect viewers to forget, too? In its episode-long twist on The Return Of Martin Guerre, a French film about an imposter who assumes another man’s life after returning from war (see also: Don Draper/Richard Whitman on Mad Men), The Simpsons boldly asked us to forget everything we knew about Principal Seymour Skinner and then asked us to forget forgetting. Arriving in the middle of Principal Skinner’s 20th anniversary at Springfield Elementary School, the “real” Seymour Skinner (voiced by Martin Sheen, in a nod to Apocalypse Now) reveals the straight-laced and lovably hapless principal as an imposter named Armin Tamzarian, a red-bellied fellow Vietnam soldier who took over his life while he logged time in a POW camp and a Chinese sweatshop. The episode, called “The Principal And The Pauper,” is often cited as a “jump the shark” moment for recklessly sabotaging the show’s character continuity. (Matt Groening and Harry Shearer are not fans.) Yet the end of the show—when the “real” Seymour Skinner is shipped out on the flatcar of a freight train and a judge declares that Armin will be henceforth referred to as Seymour Skinner—comments sharply on TV shows that ask us to become invested in characters and later pull out the rug.