The Decline of the B-Story

As the networks slowly start re-learning the fact that audiences will always like multi-camera sitcoms, I’m going to make one prediction about the future of the format: multi-camera shows will have basically one plot per episode, and the “B” story — a separate story involving characters who don’t have much to do with the main story — will mostly be restricted to shows that don’t use live audiences.

Actually, I shouldn’t say “future of the format,” because it’s really the present of the format. Most of the CBS multi-camera shows do not use a lot of B-stories. Take The Big Bang Theory last night (which was one of those episodes that makes you wonder why anyone would ever hang out with Sheldon or Howard). The main story was the four guys taking a train trip. The way sitcoms were written in the Friends era, if you had some of the characters go on a trip, there would also be a secondary story at home with the characters who didn’t go. But that didn’t happen here. Penny got a few scenes on the phone with Leonard and Sheldon (as always, her scenes with Sheldon were the best part, and they weren’t even in the room together), but she didn’t have a story of her own. You could argue that the A-story was really two little stories in one (three of the guys trying to hit on Summer Glau; Sheldon trying to get his flashdrive whatchamajigger), but the point is that there was no separate story in a separate location, and in other, better episodes, there’s just one story for the whole evening, period.

How I Met Your Mother, on the other hand, almost always has two or more stories. (Last night: Pretentious douche Ted and his even more pretentious, douchey ex-girlfriend; Marshall forgets his pants; and did I mention that Ted is annoying?) But while that show is multi-camera, it doesn’t use a live audience and patterns itself after single-camera shows, with their faster pace and very short scenes. The Office and 30 Rock always have several plots going on, usually not just two but three plots, which may or may not intersect. One of the reasons why the multi-plot format is so perfect for a one-camera show is that those shows are more dependent on editing to create their pacing and timing; more stories per episode create more options in editing. The Office is a show that’s basically made in the editing room, in the sense that the final edit may have a different structure from the script; with two or three plots a week, there are more editing choices to make.

For many years, most television shows, whether an hour or a half-hour, told basically one story per episode. Shows like M*A*S*H and Barney Miller helped change this in the ’70s, and this spread to hour-long dramas (which were also influenced by multi-story movies like Robert Altman’s original M*A*S*H). By the late ’80s, it was common if not required for every comedy to have an A and a B story in most episodes, and then the two most popular sitcoms of the ’90s took this to a new level: Seinfeld would give every character his or her own story and tie them all together at the end, while Friends usually had three stories per episode plus maybe an extra running gag that wasn’t really a story in itself.

The problem was that this multi-story format was one of the things that helped make sitcoms seem so hopelessly lame by the end of the ’90s: good A stories would be combined with corny B stories, and the need to do so many plots meant that shows ate through all their good story ideas much too quickly. And the shrinking running times meant that there wasn’t enough time to tell one story adequately, let alone two. That’s why Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, made “no B stories” one of his rules when he made the show. Every episode would be one story and only one, and instead of giving the supporting characters their own separate plot, they would drop by to give their perspective on the main problem of the week. (This was just a throwback to the way radio and TV comedies were written up until the ’70s.)

It’s Raymond that has become the template for a lot of the shows that don’t use B stories: keep the pace more leisurely, allow more time for the audience to react to a joke, and use very simple stories that don’t require a lot of time to resolve. In the ’90s, many multi-camera sitcoms used scenes that lasted under a minute (when Michael J. Fox did Spin City, he gave many interviews mentioning that this was the biggest change in TV, that he was now doing dozens of little scenes a week). Except for Mother, this is now the province of one-camera shows; multi-camera shows are moving back to having fewer sets and longer scenes — probably the only way for a show like that to tell a story when there’s only 20 minutes of screen time.