Monday, May 22, 2023

Chuck vs. the Subplot

Hi, I'm Morgan. Here are a few things you need to know, or maybe you just forgot.


It's been awhile. Pretty good semester on the whole, but I'm not here to talk about that. Rather, I'm here to talk about the show I watched throughout the semester. That show being Chuck

This year, my family finally watched Chuck. I say finally because I've wanted to watch it for years (I only knew that it stars Zachary Levi and J. Grace Pennington likes it, but that was enough for me), but any time we were ready for a new show, it had gone off streaming. Until now.

After the first episode, I was super confused, partly because I didn't actually know the premise (computer nerd accidentally downloads government secrets into his brain, becomes a CIA asset and eventually a spy himself—in a nutshell, it gets way more complicated than that), but it wasn't long before I was completely hooked. About halfway through the series (I just watched the finale and I DON'T WANT IT TO BE OVER), it hit me that one of the main reasons I enjoyed it so much was because it is actually well-written. Shouldn't be a novelty, right?

Now, I'm not going to pretend Chuck is a perfect show. It's not, no show is. There were definitely some story arcs that felt less developed than others and I didn't love every narrative decision. But overall, on the whole, it's an extremely well-written show and I think there's a lot that can be learned from it as a writer. And the first thing that struck me about the writing was the handling of subplots.

Subplots can be tricky. I've seen a lot of complaining about subplots in various newer shows, and I can't exactly argue with that. A lot of shows handle subplots poorly, and I have to admit, it has caused me to quit some shows. *cough* The Flash *cough* I'm just theorizing here, but I think it's at least partially due to a misunderstanding of the role of subplots and supporting characters.

Pulling a definition off the internet, subplots are "A literary technique, subplot is a secondary plot, or a strand of the main plot that runs parallel to it and supports it. It is usually found in plays, novels, short stories, television shows, and movies. It is also known as a “minor story,” or as “B” or “C” story. Its purpose is to add complexity and depth to the story, and thereby increases tension – a state of high interest and suspense about events in a story....The function of subplot is to describe hidden impulses behind actions of the major characters. While this secondary strand has two effects on a storyline, mostly it ties directly to the main plot and characters, putting an immediate effect on situations and characters. However, an alternative way is that subplots run parallel to the main story. This serves as a contrast to explain decisions of the leading characters." —

What I've seen in a startling number of shows—but not in Chuck—is that the subplots and secondary characters take over the main narrative to the point that the main narrative practically doesn't exist anymore and the protagonist is constantly sidelined, sometimes barely scoring any screen time. Two examples: The Flash season 6/7 on (I don't remember exactly; it's been awhile and 6 and 7 kind of bleed into each other due to the filming of 6 being interrupted by COVID lockdowns) and The Mandalorian season 3. In The Flash, which I loved for the first several seasons, it got to a point where episodes were constantly focused on the stories of minor characters, such as the episode where Cecile was psychically trapped in a mental hospital, the episodes that were all about Killer Frost, and the episode about Allegra and her cousin that occurred while Barry and Iris were on vacation and barely cameoed. It got to the point where by the end of season 7, I was constantly hoping in vain for an episode to actually be about the titular character and then quit the show in frustration. Occasionally I check IG comments on the official account to see that it hasn't gotten better; if anything, it's gotten worse. In The Mandalorian season 3, we really got very little about Din and Grogu at all. For most of it, they were just kind of there and it was pretending to be Bo Katan's story. And yet, then we had the episode about Dr. Pershing, which I did find to be interesting, but that took almost the entirety of the screen time of the episode and then had very little effect on the finale compared to the time they devoted to it. Same sort of thing in The Book of Boba Fett. There was an entire episode all about Din Djarin, just so that he could be in the finale and Grogu could be back with him in Mando season 3. In a show that was purportedly about Boba Fett becoming a crime lord as he takes over what used to be Jabba's (and Bib Fortuna's in the interim).²

There are two problems here to unpack: Narrative purpose and screen time allocation. Both are things that, generally speaking, Chuck does very well.

Screen time allocation is a little quicker and easier to discuss, so I'll address it first. In an episodic, serialized format, it is a bad (very risky at best) idea to devote an entire or nearly entire episode to the development of a subplot. I admit, I'm a little biased here because I'm the sort of person who tends to zone out during chapters in books that aren't about my favorite characters. However, it doesn't take a detective (or at least, it only takes a FB detective) to see that there is a significant portion of people who are also frustrated by this trend of taking leave of the main narrative and main characters for an extended period of time to develop a subplot and minor characters. Chuck doesn't do this. Just like it does a good job of balancing action and emotional scenes, it does a really good job of allocating adequate time to subplots without overwhelming the main narrative. Typically it does this by interspersing quick scenes that flash (get it? 🤪 yes, I know I'm a dork) back and forth with the main story, which often has longer scenes and more of them strung together. In a novel, you can afford to make your subplot chunks a little larger, though I would warn writers against spending too big a chunk of time on a secondary plot. As a Narnia fan, I love the book Prince Caspian, but other disagreements with the film aside, I do think it was a wise decision to intersperse Caspian's storyline with the Pevensies' rather than taking a break from their story to have Trumpkin tell Caspian's story in full. Same deal with the structure of the LOTR movies. Particularly in a visual medium, this works better. And when you are working with a serial format, it's especially important not to spend large chunks of time with a subplot because then your installment for the week has nothing to do with the main characters and a lot of viewers are liable to quit. 

That leads to my other, more important, point. The narrative purpose of a subplot is to flesh out and support the main narrative. The subplot is the B story. It should never be given more time than the A story, and it should never take away the focus from the main narrative. As stated in our definition, it should add complexity and depth to the main story, describe the motivations of the main characters, and tie directly into the main plot. While screen time allocation could be relatively easily fixed by deleting some scenes and chopping up the remaining sequences to intersperse with the main narrative, this poor understanding of the purpose of a subplot is a major structural, storytelling problem that takes a lot more work and understanding of story to fix.

When we take a look at the later seasons of The Flash and season 3 of The Mandalorian, it's actually difficult to discern what the main narrative actually is. Does it have one? Does it involve the protagonist? What does the subplot have to do with the main plot? 

The Flash episode about Allegra and her cousin while Barry and Iris are on vacation doesn't really seem to have any role in supporting any story Barry is involved in. In fact, it is the third episode of a set literally considered an "interlude." Maybe Allegra's story is interesting. Maybe it ought to be told. But reality is, the show is The Flash. The first several seasons were Barry's story. Barry was established as the protagonist and so any subplots ought to function to support Barry's story. Whereas at this point in the show, Barry really doesn't have much of a story besides the ongoing drama of when he and Iris will have a baby and whether or not it will be the same Nora they know from the future. And if the subplot you're writing is the more interesting one where there's actually a story to tell, you need to reevaluate the story you're telling. Perhaps you're telling the wrong one. If you're several seasons into a show and resorting to turning subplots into main narratives and secondary characters into protagonists while sidelining the original protagonist, it just might be a sign the show has gone on for far too long and you should have wrapped it up already. And if this side character's story is one that needs to be told, the better way to tell it is by creating a spinoff, not by hijacking the original show.

The Mandalorian season 3 suffers the same issue. The first two seasons were clearly about Din and Grogu. They had clear series goals. And while there sometimes seemed to be too many side quests and filler episodes, there weren't large chunks of time devoted to other narratives. I'm not really sure what the point of season 3 was. You had Din's goal of rejoining the Children of the Watch, resolved at the beginning of episode 3 before diverting to Dr. Pershing for the majority of the episode. You had Bo's quest to take back Mandalore which was disjointed and interrupted by side quests that really didn't feed into the goal in any obvious, significant way (like Jack Black and Lizzo's planet). You had the Dr. Pershing episode, which I did feel like was going somewhere...only it didn't. I guess the point was to show that the greater galaxy wasn't going to find out about Gideon's cloning experiments? When there's no clear main narrative and the protagonist gets sidelined, even the subplots end up feeling purposeless. What are they supporting and fleshing out? Not really anything. It leaves everything feeling disjointed and pointless. Honestly, my favorite parts of season 3 were seeing the purrgils, Zeb's 30 seconds of screen time, and Gilad Pellaeon's hologram appearance...all nods towards the upcoming Ahsoka.

Then we come to Chuck. Chuck's subplots really fit within our definition of a subplot. They support and flesh out the main narrative, develop Chuck's actions and motivations, parallel the main narrative in meaningful ways, and feed into the climax of the main storyline. I cannot recall a single episode where I felt that Chuck Bartowski was sidelined (being told to stay in the van is a different matter entirely, lol) or where the subplot seemed to overshadow the main plot or be irrelevant to the narrative. Again, not saying it's perfect—I think the latter half of season 4 could have been developed a little better/more cohesively had those episodes not been ordered after the first 13 had been developed and begun airing—but it's much better done than a lot of shows I've seen in the last few years.

I do think there is a bit of a shift in the role of the subplots as Chuck gets more settled into the spy life and more of his friends and family find out about it. Some characters, such as Morgan Grimes, shift from being primarily B story characters to being primarily A story characters and some secondary characters, such as Ellie and Awesome, are more relevant to the A story than the B story and vice versa simply depending on the episode. 

In early seasons, the subplots do a lot more to contrast Chuck's old normal life with his new spy life. Dinner plans with his sister Ellie that get derailed. Jeff and Lester being, well, Jeff and Lester and Chuck having to manage them. Emmett coming to take over the Buy More and having a problem with Chuck being constantly gone though all the employees say that Chuck is the one who keeps things going, provides their moral compass, and holds the team together. Ellie and Morgan bonding over missing Chuck. These sorts of things don't always necessarily relate to the plot per se, but they always do something to flesh out Chuck as the main character, to develop who he is, what his motivations are, what he's giving up to be a spy, who he is trying to protect.

But often times, they do also relate to the plot itself. A few examples.

In "Chuck vs. the Aisle of Terror" there's a subplot that involves Jeff and Lester being put in charge of decorating the Buy More for Halloween. They create the "Aisle of Terror" based on a psychological experiment Jeff was once involved in that shows images meant to be terrifying and disturbing to the psychotic (public showers, babies in snail costumes, old people, etc.). It might seem random, but in the end, Chuck and the bad guy of the week get infected with a toxin that causes terror, and when they go into the "Aisle of Terror" Chuck is able to use the images to incapacitate him.

Throughout several episodes in season 2, there is a recurring subplot where Ellie delegates some of the wedding planning to her fiancé Awesome and his search involves letting Jeff and Lester audition as their band Jeffster. They're pretty terrible. But then in the season finale, Ellie's wedding is crashed by evil Fulcrum agents and they need to delay the ceremony. Out comes Jeffster. And Jeffster recurs throughout the series to the point where in the series finale, they play at the end of a symphony in order to buy Chuck time to defuse a bomb that will explode when the music stops. 

Finally, throughout a good portion of season 4, there is a recurring subplot wherein Ellie inherits her and Chuck's dad's laptop and is trying to access the files and discover why he left it to her—actually to both her and Chuck. It's something that pops up in occasional scenes involving Ellie and Awesome (and quite a few Buy More employees 😂), and eventually leads into a join with the main storyline and the discovery of Agent X...which...okay, I won't spoil everything but that's an important plot element in season 4.

There are many more examples I could give, but this post is already more than long enough and if you're still with me, congratulations on your long attention span and devotion to my ramblings. The point is, these subplots in Chuck do exactly what a subplot should: flesh out the main character and feed into the main plot. Rather than taking away from the main storyline or muddying the waters and making it unclear what the main storyline is, they enhance it, deepen it, and support. it.

So when you add a subplot to your writing, make sure you know what purpose it serves. Make sure it supports the A story, fleshes out or supports the main character in some way, isn't irrelevant, and is given an appropriate amount of space in the narrative. The moment it distracts from the A story is the moment you need to consider rethinking it. But a well told subplot can truly make a story great.

And on that note...

Disclaimer: Storytelling is an art form, and art by nature contains subjectivity. Nothing in this post is intended to disparage anyone who enjoyed my negative examples or those who created them, nor is it intended to shame anyone who did not enjoy my positive examples. It is only intended to be an academic analysis of why certain stories worked for me and many others while other stories did not. If you disagree with my conclusions, you are 100% entitled to that opinion, but do note that my opinion on this matter is settled and as I am starting summer classes soon, I have better things to do with my time than argue on the internet about storytelling.

¹ While I adore this show and highly recommend it for adults, it is NOT a children's show. Therefore, I do not recommend it for children and strongly encourage parental discretion for teens based on your family's content standards. 

² I still consider myself a Star Wars superfan and CW's The Flash remains the only DC property I've actually really loved, but reality is, both made some mistakes in writing. Also, I am not saying these things to trash either property, but simply to illustrate my point for educational purposes.

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