The best sitcoms are enriched with multiple dynamic characters and plotlines that can find humor in just about anything, including the smallest, dumbest moments. Just like how supporting characters are often fan favorites due to their freedom to be more specialized and frivolous, sometimes an episode’s B-story outshines its main plot with its almost sketch-like, lower-stakes conflict that would otherwise get spread too thin with a longer runtime. Subplots about moving furniture and birthday decorations become zeitgeist fixtures despite their omission from episode titles and synopses. Here’s nine sitcom subplots that prove bigger isn’t always better.
Season 3, “The Bubble”
Season 3 introduced two new members to the main cast of Parks and Rec: Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger and Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt, who eventually marries leading gal Leslie Knope. Early on in their courtship, the couple runs into an awkward confrontation as Ben has to negotiate financials with Leslie’s mother, a fellow city politician, and their predicament is not all that interesting. It’s a skippable episode, if not for the B-story in which the rest of the Parks Department is left reeling from the drastic changes Chris has made to the office, including reassigning Tom and Andy to the dreaded third floor and making the antisocial libertarian Ron occupy a circular desk in the middle of the office. This storyline alone spawned two of the series’ best jokes: Donna complaining about her spaceship-looking new keyboard (“I’m down to one word a minute, and that word is ‘perflipishklump,’ because I can’t fly spaceships”), and Ron slowly spinning away from a concerned citizen who got at infection from making tea with dirty sprinkler water. It’s an A+ of a B-plot.
Season 5, “Lecture Circuit: Parts 1 & 2”
relies heavily on awkward interactions with tactless business professionals, which can range from to hilariously absurd to simply tiring. In a rare misfire for a two-parter, Michael’s lecture tour of the other Dunder Mifflin offices is about as fun as your typical work seminar, but what’s really worth watching is Dwight and Jim’s attempt to right some wrongs by throwing Kelly a belated birthday party. As the new heads of the Party Planning Committee, the skilled salesmen show off their ineptitude by half-inflating gray and brown balloons (“They match the carpet!”), spelling the birthday girl’s name wrong on an otherwise blank cake, and posting a now iconic stale, impersonal banner that simply reads “IT IS YOUR BIRTHDAY.” The combination of Kelly and Dwight, two of the show’s most chaotic characters, makes for one of the best stories of Season 5.
Season 3, “The Siren”
The Staten Island vampire mockumentary, a spinoff of the 2014 film of the same name, is arguably today’s best running sitcom. In many ways, Shadows has surpassed its source material thanks to its expanded cast that includes female vamps Nadja (played brilliantly by Natasia Demetriou) and the one-time guest, now-recurring character known as The Guide (Kristen Schaal). Demetriou actually pulls double duty playing both her vampire self and a look-alike doll that houses the spirit of her former human self. Since Season 2’s “Ghosts,” the Nadja doll plays a very minor role, similar to a tertiary Simpsons character, popping up when you least expect it with a quick quip. She finally gets the spotlight turned on her in Season 3’s “The Siren.” Feeling unappreciated, she runs away, leaping into different dummies like a toy store mannequin, a strike rat, and a stone statue for an episode full of great sight gags, physical comedy, and puppeteering excellence. Shadows does a great job of balancing their subplots so you get as much time with Nadja as you do with Colin Robinson and Laszlo’s run-in with a siren which, apart from the latter’s Best Buy shopping spree, is otherwise forgettable. With any luck, we’ll get more of the Nadja doll in Season 4.
Season 2, “The Ricks Must Be Crazy”
Rick & Morty skyrocketed to mega fandom during its stellar second season. While the titular characters’ journeys are uniquely bonkers thanks to Rick’s dimension-jumping technology, older sister Summer proves to be the show’s scene-stealer and an adept traveling companion as she spends more time with her brother and grandfather. On one such trip, Summer stays in Rick’s flying car while he and Morty tend to a battery issue inside the battery. A seemingly boring concept becomes the episode’s best bit as the car’s safety features take drastically violent precautions in order to protect Summer, including murdering a passerby and an even more disturbing psychological attack on a grieving father/SWAT team member.
Season 3, “The Unnatural”
Each member of the Belcher family is a quirk-filled icon of TV animation. While we love the Casio-wielding Gene, he works best as a supporting character as he’s not strong enough to center the A-plot around. Take, for example, the Season 3 finale where the unathletic Gene participates in a scam baseball clinic. Meanwhile, Tina is here to save the day again, as the dry, awkward teen gets addicted to espresso and all things caffeine. The coffee boosts Tina’s confidence, speed, and anger as she develops a one-track mind for those sweet beans, a fixation that culminates in her chugging a pot of week-old, dirty motel coffee. High-strung Tina is an excellent Tina.
Season 10, “Lard of the Dance”
In a Lisa-heavy episode, a new, more mature girl speedily rises to popularity at school, leaving Lisa to feel like even more of an outsider. The B-story holds most of the laughs since it focuses on the more dimwitted and irresponsible members of the Simpsons clan, Homer and Bart, as they attempt to achieve financial independence by selling grease (“Of course with grease!”). Their new business venture goes as well as you’d expect as the inept boys run afoul of rival salesmen and a buff and tipsy Groundskeeper Willie.
Season 5, “Reaganing”
While Jack and Liz run through a makeshift therapy session in his limousine, Kenneth the page takes a walk on the wild side as he, Jenna, and special guest Kelsey Grammer run a series of grifts. Their target is the local Carvel ice cream shop, whose cash or debit refund policy gets taken advantage of as the trio orders a series of purposely-misspelled ice cream cakes. One of 30 Rock’s many running gags includes exaggerated and out-of-character cameos from celebrities, and confidence man Frasier Crane (“No, it’s ‘Frajer.’ And I should know. I’m Frajer.”) is one of their best.
Season 2, “Eric’s Stash”
Dorky Eric Foreman and the delinquent Steven Hyde’s lifelong friendship is threatened when Eric immediately suspects his bestie is responsible for his missing cash stash. As real tensions rise, elsewhere proverbial scene-stealer Jackie prepares for a beauty pageant with the help of boyfriend and village idiot Kelso as her “pageant boy.” Kelso goes full pageant mom, butting heads with Jackie and Fez in pursuit of perfection (“In 1974, Miss Alabama started thinking. You know where she is now: Alabama.”). The final shots of Kelso vigorously cheering on a clog-dancing Jackie is the pièce de résistance.
Season 5, “The One with the Cop”
While a Phoebe-centric episode is ideal, her adventures with a missing police badge and Michael Rappaport pale in comparison to Ross’ furniture shopping trip. Rachel accompanies Ross as he looks for a new couch, but when he deems the store’s delivery fee too high, the two attempt to carry it home themselves. Ross’ elevator-less building forces them to try to work around its narrow and winding stairwell only to fail spectacularly. After “We were on a break,” the desperate screams of “Pivot!” is Ross’ most memorable quote of the series.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.