Plot versus story, redux

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When it comes to TV, plot is not important.

That thought rang out while watching the fourth episode of this season of “Orange Is The New Black” the other night. (Yes, I’m “behind,” or whatever that means in the days of bingewatching. Whatever.) Very little has technically “happened” this season, but I have really loved it so far. No two shows do plot the same, but to be sure, no matter what program it is, it’s always and ever the least important aspect of what makes it successful.

This is not to say that a well-constructed plot can’t help a show. I’m merely stating that of all the things that go into a show, the plot has the least to do with what people enjoy about it. What people really enjoy, if I may be so bold as to speak for them, is story. And story could not be more different than plot. I’ve offered up my definitions of both before, but I’ll put them here again for easy reference.

The plot defines what happens.

The story defines why what happens actually matters.

Story is dependent upon plot, so it’s not as if television shows can meander through the meaning of existence like a Richard Linklater film and work on an episode-by-episode basis. I mean, yes, it probably could, and I’d love to see that show if the execution is successful. I’m not anti-plot by any means. I just see it as a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself.

Let’s take a few examples of what I mean, using shows that have their stories directly spun from the plot, with the latter helping drive the former rather than shackle it.

Orange Is The New Black

The current plot: The prison is being shut down, and all inside are dealing with the fallout from such a possibility.

The current story: As much as anywhere else, this prison is a valid community and deserves to have its often-silenced voices heard.

Penny Dreadful

The current plot: The Devil is trying to raise hell on earth, and our heroes are trying to stop him.

The current story: A group of outsiders find solace in each other, and recognize that what separates them from society also makes them perfectly suited to help save it.

The 100

The current plot: Various groups of humanity fight for survival in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event that all but wipes out all living creatures.

The current story: Fundamentally good people find themselves consistently compromised in the name of protecting those they love. Such protection often comes at the cost of human life or one’s own soul.

The plots of television shows are specific. But the stories are archetypal. The plots of television shows usually have little relation to everyday events. But the stories tie into incredibly relatable emotions. The best shows don’t have to come up with original plots to astound. These shows need only to take a familiar plot and find a new way into it that reveals a common human experience. I know nothing about living in prison, fighting demons, or creating society from nothing. But I do know something about compassion, isolation, and the illusion of easy, binary choices. And that’s why these shows speak to me.

If there’s a show you love, chances are you could understand exactly why if you can articulate a show’s story, at least as much as you see it. Part of that resides in the power of articulation: 99% of my job as a critic is to articulate what a show’s story is and why or why not it works. The rise in the quality of both television and television criticism comes from the rise of interesting stories that TV shows tell. This also explains why it’s easy to write a few thousand words about a show like “Mad Men” but then struggle to write 500 about a show like “Blue Bloods.” It’s not that “Blue Bloods” is a “bad” show. But its plot to story ratio doesn’t lend itself to the type of analysis in a way that, say, the first season of “Homeland” did. A show can be perfectly fine if it’s almost entirely plot. But I’d argue it can never truly be great without a good story.

The primary reason I leave shows behind is when they substitute story for plot in order to sustain itself over the long haul. “Sleepy Hollow” and “Orphan Black” both fell off my radar due to “Sons Of Anarchy” levels of overcomplication. In all three cases, people started doing things because the plot required them to do so, which in turn made characterization odd, which in turn severed my connection to those characters. I think you can have a great story without a great plot. I’ve yet to find a single air-tight plot in any show I’ve ever watched, but I’ve loved those shows anyway if they deliver a great story. But you can’t have a great show in which the plot shackles or delays the proper telling of the story.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you ever heard someone say, “We have the first five years of this show planned out!”, run for the goddamn hills.

Why? Because this show has put the wrong emphasis on what’s important. Five great characters trumps five great plotlines any and every day of the week. Plotting out five seasons of plot removes any chance of surprise along the way. Two actors might spark onscreen. One actor might leave due to contract disputes. Two million practical things might get in the way of that execution, and all that’s left onscreen are some half-baked thoughts that don’t cohere as a whole because a little thing called reality suddenly slapped that show silly.

Unlike a novelist that gets to rewrite a manuscript before it’s released or a film director that can recast/reshoot things that aren’t working, a showrunner can’t go back and alter any episode that’s already aired. I’m sure at some point we’ll get the equivalent of George Lucas that goes back and “fixes” his or her show, but that exercise would miss the point: TV is a messy medium, and that’s a feature instead of a bug. It’s a medium that rewards story due to the sheer amount of time that audiences spend with its characters, and penalizes plot because the sheer tonnage of episodes that a successful series has to make. And yet time after time, shows try to be cleverer than the audience or the medium itself, only to fall hilariously short of this lofty goal.

Shows that focus on story, rather than plot, have the flexibility to navigate the long-term needs that a production demands and the short-term needs that audiences crave. If a show understands what its story is, then plot turns into a way to help tell that story. It puts things into motion that force the characters to make choices that are surprising to themselves as well as the audience. The plot can last a few episodes or an entire season, but can cease once that particular part of the story has been told. Each installment of “Spartacus” told a series of interconnected stories over the course of its four seasons, which each season telling a related variation of the one that came before it. Even if you can articulate the story for “Blood And Sand” and “War Of The Damned” and find them different, you can see the last story comes as a direct result of the initial one. This is less of a change than an evolution, a constant refining and reaffirmation of what makes the show important.

This is how successful shows grow: By deepening its story rather than its plot. It doesn’t simply take its story for granted, but constantly test its validity and see if the show and its fictional inhabitants can live up to it. A television show’s story offers up both a reason to exist and a reason for an audience member to give a shit about it. We will probably never live out the plots of these shows. But we are always and ever living out their stories. At its best, television shows that we are not alone in these stories, and offers up a chance to see how we can be our best even if we feel at our worst.