Caveat: admittedly this is something you’d also see in film and other storytelling mediums, but I’m still gonna stick to TV when I talk about this (So I like the alliteration in my title. Sue me…but not really).
While it’s cliché of me to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, it doesn’t make the phrase any less true, and TV, as a visual medium, is capable of telling vibrant stories through imagery, showing audiences what’s happening rather than just telling. Telling is important, but it’s the showing that adds weight and credibility to a story. I can tell you that this character feels guilty or that there’s an epic battle happening between two armies, but it’s more believable when you see it happening for yourself.
That’s why I love it when a show does a lot of showing: It’s engaging, almost interactive. Forgoing dialogue and narration to let sights and sounds speak for themselves, it tasks the audience to pay attention and glean parts of the story through subtle signals. You’re encouraged—no, challenged—to use your intuition and knowledge to engage the story and figure out what’s happening. Deduce, analyze, associate, these are our natural instincts as humans. It’s so natural to us that, while we may not always feel a sense of accomplishment when we do catch on to a story, we feel a bit patronized whenever a show spends a too much time spelling out or reiterating plot details we’ve already figured out. A show that understands this instinct spends less time on trivialities and more time on developing the story. This leaves more room for creativity and development, thus making a story all the more appealing and giving the audience more to chew on. It’s satisfying.
A great example is Samurai Jack, a cartoon that knows how to show. It beautifully illustrates the epic quest of a wandering samurai, and spends minutes within an episode showing off vast landscapes and beautiful scenery, drawing in audiences before a word is even spoken. Of course, there’s plenty of exposition and dialogue, as any good show should have, but Samurai Jack’s charm is that it knows how not to get bogged down by too much telling. There are episodes and sequences where Jack barely says a word, yet you can still easily tell what’s going on.
In one episode, Jack comes across a magical well that can grant his wish to return home, but it’s guarded by 3 archers, who shoot at him as he nears. Jack narrowly avoids the onslaught of arrows and hides behind a tree. After noticing the sun gleaming off the arrows, Jack rushes the archers while flashing his sword above him in the sunlight, clearly attempting to blind the archers, but his plan is (almost literally) shot down. Behind a tree again, Jack sticks his hat out to see if the archers will shoot it, but they only do so after he throws it to the ground. Puzzled, Jack takes a closer look at the archers and is shocked to discover that they are already blind, revealing that they have been relying on their powerful ears to track his movements. The crux of the entire episode is revealed without a word spoken whatsoever (and yes, I do realize the irony of using an episode about three blind archers as an example of showing over telling). Without words, you’re given more opportunity to read Jack’s expressions and actions, to understand how he thinks and feels, drawing you into the story.
Steven Universe is another show that tends to do more showing rather than telling, especially when it comes to its own lore. At its core, it’s a show about a boy, Steven, going on adventures with the Crystal Gems, his otherworldly friends, and, while there’s more to the story than that, its grand scale is never revealed all at once or through extensive exposition. Pieces of the metanarrative are slowly revealed over time as the series progresses, each one used to reflect the show’s overall themes.
For instance, fusion, when two or more Gems combine to form a greater Gem, explores intimacy in relationships. Beyond being called “an experience,” the deeper mechanizations of fusion, or any of the other hows and whys behind it, are never fully spelled out. Rather, Steven Universe focuses on presenting fusion as the physical manifestation of the relationship between multiple Gems, established through a shared goal, trust, affection, or even love. A fusion is created when Gems dance in sync together, an already personal act made even more intimate by the provocative ways they dance. The new entity created harbors the combined consciousness of the fused gems and remains intact so long as they’re in sync, which is easy or hard depending on the Gems in question.
Steven Universe uses fusion to show firsthand deeper interactions between its characters and how they affect one another. In “Alone Together,” Steven, a half-Gem and half-human, fuses with his human friend Connie, creating Stevonnie. As Stevonnie goes off to have fun, we see close conversations take place between Connie and Steven, all done through Stevonnie’s lips, as they try to comprehend their new-found closeness. Though it’s never fully established when Steven talks and when Connie talks, it’s clear from Stevonnie’s words that the fusion is having an effect on them both. After going to a dance party, Stevonnie nearly breaks down in anxiety, feeling both together and alone. Soon after, with no explicit prompting, the fusion is undone, separating Steven and Connie, who both start laughing and playing again. No explanations are given, and no one even questions what just happened. In this episode, and in others like it, questions are raised that Steven Universe purposely doesn’t answer right away, engaging audiences by allowing them to ponder and theorize their own answers based on what is shown. You might be left a little confused at times, but it’s the kind of confusion that makes you hunger for more while you keep chewing on what you’ve been given, contemplating the possibilities.
Like SU’s fusions, showing is an intimate interaction between the show and the viewer. By showing, not only does a story acknowledge its audiences, it asks them to be a part of it. It’s a two-way street of engagement that makes it easier for a story to impact you as you take the time to appreciate its nuances, thus making the TV-watching experience all the more fulfilling. All it takes is a little tell and a lot of show.