What are some TV shows that feature hidden or subtle arcs?
May 23, 2013 9:50 PM   Subscribe

I've asked before about shows with good or obvious story arcs, now I'm wondering about shows that have hidden or subtle story arcs.

Basically, themes or a pattern that comes up spread out over multiple episodes but is not made the focus of the show. McBain in the Simpsons is a good example.
posted by Deathalicious to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Arrested Development. All of it, pretty much, is this
posted by Jacen at 10:01 PM on May 23, 2013 [16 favorites]

In the US version of The Office, there are a number of arcs with individual characters that are given subtle attention throughout, and some were given closure in the finale. I think the British version does this better, though. It's one of the reasons why you grow to like some of the characters, because they are fleshed out over the series. Some arcs are obvious, but some are shared winks with the audience.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:03 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Doctor Who, the first four seasons especially (see: Bad Wolf) Then they got a different show runner who is less about the secret hidden clues and more about the whole timey-wimey mindfuck.
posted by Weeping_angel at 10:17 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the short-lived series Stella, there's one actor (Justin Lord) who usually shows up near the end of an episode to help wrap up the whole story despite the fact that this character otherwise has nothing to do with the other characters, as kind of a gentle parody of sitcoms. In the last episode of the series, he finally acknowledges his ongoing role in their lives.

Seconding The Office (US). The series is much better if you watch it from the very beginning through the very end. Something will happen that might seem kind of random and not even that funny in one or two episodes, but later on, you'll realize it was actually subtly significant to the whole arc of a character or relationship stretching across years (e.g. Dwight killing Angela's cat, Ryan having a drug problem, Toby having a crush on Pam).
posted by John Cohen at 10:31 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Babylon Five.

Geezus was that show GREAT (until the last season, but the post-series specials made up for that enough that I still judge the story, overall, a masterpiece.)

Nthing Twin Peaks.

The first bunch of seasons of the Doctor Who reboot are nearly flawless. I'd like to comment on the Matt Smith seasons, because in nuance, they are a lot flat. So formulaic. There's so much great character work in there, but the writing is awful.

Ecclestone is amazing. David Tenant gets the best story lines.
posted by jbenben at 10:43 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Venture Brothers! Little background jokes become essential to the canon seasons later! Throwaway jokes turn out to be vital clues! Characters change and grow in curiously foreshadowed ways!
posted by sleeping bear at 11:39 PM on May 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

OP: Are you looking for a list of series with these story arcs, or are you looking for information _about_ these arcs, because so far you're just getting a list of tv shows...
posted by devnull at 12:05 AM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

The British OFFICE does this even better, I think. In the final episode in particular there are cuts to non-speaking members of the cast laughing or crying that suggest the background extras are having their own story arcs we just don't follow, and that those stories turned out less happy than David Brent's or Tim and Dawn's. You can piece together what seems to have been happening to them if you watch closely. (There's a similar, much briefer joke like this in SHAUN OF THE DEAD as well.)

COMMUNITY also has an episode where one character's entire plot arc is in blink-and-you-miss-it background gags.

PORTLANDIA has been developing in this direction lately, in the absence of a main plot.
posted by gerryblog at 5:14 AM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Gossip Girl did this with the maid of the main character. The first couple of seasons she was a very minor character, but every so often there'd be a bit of information indicating that the maid had a full life of her own. In later seasons they brought her story more to the forefront, but in service of the main characters' stories.

It's not worth watching just for that, though. Nothing subtle about GG.
posted by stowaway at 6:24 AM on May 24, 2013

The original Law and Order, despite its standalone episodes reputation had nice subtle character and plot arcs across multiple episodes/seasons, especially in the first 10 seasons or so.
posted by Jahaza at 6:29 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by hmo at 6:33 AM on May 24, 2013

The old show Alien Nation was full of both larger story arcs and a ton of evolving smaller story arcs, all in a buddy cop procedural. So you'd be introduced to Albert the janitor, who seemed developmentally disabled, and watch him fertilize the main character's wife (it makes sense in context) and fall in love himself by the end of the very short series.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:57 AM on May 24, 2013

Seconding Babylon Five. A professor of mine built his career on analyzing the subtle subplots of that show. If that is not a good indicator of what you are looking for, I don't know what would be!
posted by whatzit at 7:16 AM on May 24, 2013

The Wire has a character that appears in only three scenes across three seasons, with a total screen time of maybe seven minutes. Through this we see a full beginning-middle-end journey through drug addiction, prostitution, and eventual recovery. This character never interacts directly with the main storylines and it's possible to watch the whole series and miss it.
posted by Smallpox at 7:28 AM on May 24, 2013

Community did a gag where the name Beetlejuice was invoked once in three different episodes across three seasons, always in just off-hand conversation. On the third time, a character dressed like Beetlejuice appears in the background and walks in and then quickly walks off camera.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:01 AM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: devnull: "OP: Are you looking for a list of series with these story arcs, or are you looking for information _about_ these arcs, because so far you're just getting a list of tv shows..."

In partial answer to this question: I was thinking about how story arcs, especially where there is some kind of "mystery" to keep the viewers hooked, and then the other side of the equation where you have your more sitcomy or X-of-the-week type shows where in general each show is relatively isolated in scope. So I wondered whether any of these shows slipped in arcs anyway, for fun or some other nefarious reason.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:10 PM on May 24, 2013

Response by poster: So to expand on this, I'm definitely more interested in shows that have no apparent arcs at all. So for example even though they had side-arcs for sure, both Babylon 5 and Arrested Development are extremely arc-y. Whereas Community is presented largely as a isolated sitcom but clearly has some hidden arcs.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:12 PM on May 24, 2013

1. I'm rewatching Monk on Netflix, and I'm impressed all over again with how they subtly built up sexual tension between Disher and Sharona during the first few seasons. That banter completely disappeared when Natalie took over as assistant, but the finale featured Sharona and Disher running off together.

2. On Criminal Minds they did a neat thing with Reid's character after he was help captive by a psychotic James Van der Beek. The killer drugged him up while holding him, and over the course of a long series of episodes, there are various subtle clues that Reid is addicted to the drugs, but not a single thing is ever said. He's a bit more unkempt (interesting for a character who is mostly unkempt to begin with), snaps at his coworkers more often, seems a bit hazier at times. The closest he gets to discussing it is when he tells his mentor he's "struggling". It is only much later, when the show actually shows him going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, that the audience really realizes he's been going through addiction and recovery onscreen, the whole time, but without any discussion of it ever taking place.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:42 AM on May 25, 2013

Alias - the Rambaldi bit. And The X-Files with the mystery of Mulder's sister, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and the greater conspiracy that wove through the episodes of the week. Both shows had some stand-alone episodes, but occasionally there would be one that touched on the greater mystery.
posted by Addlepated at 8:00 PM on May 28, 2013

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