Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lazy writing

I know. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. There are many writers who disagree. Many writers I respect. So this is one scribe’s opinion. One lowly scribe with a blog.

But I am not a fan of narration. Unless it’s in prose.

And lately there seems to be a plethora of narration on television, especially among new shows.

What’s my issue? For the most part I think it’s lazy writing.

The hardest part of telling a dramatic story is doling out the exposition. Backstory tends to be dry. Actors hate to say it. And for good reason. It’s just briefing the audience; a data dump of facts the writer feels are important. The trick – no, the art of storytelling is finding clever ways to either show the audience what they need to know or communicate it through entertaining dialogue.

Unless narration is integral to the premise of the series (like in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where the entire conceit of the show was the father talking to his kids), or a Bullwinkle cartoon (where the narrator was not just a character but did the comedy heavy lifting) it’s generally not necessary. 

When I hear “This is the story about Sarah and Skippy….” Or “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys…” I zone out. Anybody can write “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys,” but a good writer can create a character (who by her actions) shows us that in a fresh and funny way. He relies on behavior and attitude and the situation. Just saying it is the bald on-the-nose easy way.

And just who are these narrators anyway? Why are they there? Why do we need a narrator to guide us through the story? Another big offender of this is Woody Allen. The first five minutes of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is all flatfooted narration that tells you who the heroines are, what their personalities are, what they’re desiring, and why they’re there. LAY-ZEEEE.

Then there are shows where one or more of their characters provide narration. Unless there’s a real good reason for it I don’t know why it exists. Often it’s used to wrap up the show or tell us that week’s theme or life lesson. I like to think I’m smart enough to determine that on my own. I don’t need to be spoon fed.

I suspect one reason shows employ this device is so when scenes they’ve shot turn out poorly they can just scrap them and have the narrator cover the information.

On MASH we occasionally used narration to frame episodes by having a character write a letter home. First off, you knew who the narrator was writing to and why. And secondly, we used this technique very sparingly. It was a way to break the format. And even then, by year seven when David Isaacs and I were heading the writing staff we felt the device was wearing thin. We devised an episode where a Korean spy was writing about the MASH unit and the fun was hearing how he misinterpreted everything he (and we) saw. We never used it as a crutch.

Some shows break the fourth wall and have their lead characters talk directly to the audience. In some cases it works. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF would be one shining example. But that’s because the narration was less about relaying info and more about philosophizing. And I like it in HOUSE OF CARDS. But in that show the narration is part of Kevin Spacey’s character. He uses it to justify his behavior and toot his own horn. And he uses it very sparingly. I love the episode in season two where he doesn’t talk to the audience for almost the entire show, and then at the last minute he turns to the camera and says, “Did you miss me?”

But other times it feels like characters are talking to the camera just to be stylistic. There’s always the danger that you’ll take the audience out of the moment by shattering the reality. So the question becomes – is the device really necessary?

I find this less concerning in the theatre where stories are generally told stylistically, but the reality of film and TV makes it harder to buy… at least for me. JERSEY BOYS is an example where narration worked on the stage, not on the screen.

Some may argue that a narrator is necessary because there are so many facts and the exposition is very dense. The audience would be confused without it. If that’s so I question whether the story itself is too complicated.

Another problem with narrators is that they often just drop out after awhile. You hear them at the beginning and maybe an hour into a movie for three sentences and that’s it. If you establish that the narrator is your vehicle for telling the story then stick with him. To have him just pop in when you need a hole patched is again, lazy writing.

I have no conclusion here. It’s not like writers are going to stop using narration because of this post. Or Woody Allen is going to send me an apology. But if you’re an aspiring writer I want you to challenge yourself. I want you to avoid shortcuts. I want you to rise above. Or I want you to just say screw it and write a novel.


Jim S said...

I agree with you, but it can work. Look at Malcolm in the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show. Worked both times. But in Manhattan Love Story, no just no.

But I do agree, for the most part it doesn't add to the show. But it can, and that's the danger. I am also tired of the Modern Family pseudo Mockumentary style. It's a shortcut to the laughs and the same points can be addressed with structure, but that's hard.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I know it's considered lazy writing, but it doesn't bother me as much as I guess it should as a writer. Manhattan Love Story, which I know you don't like, uses it for each of the two main characters. Doesn't bother me and often sets up the character doing the exact opposite of what he/she is thinking.

William Goldman, the esteemed screenwriter, considered use of popular music to convey the mood of the scene to be cheating. Again, it didn't bother me.

Finally, watched Modern Family again last night to see if I would laugh. I didn't - and I like Steve Zahn. I've talked to other people who feel the same way about MF, although I guess we're in the minority.

John Leader Alfenito said...

Morgan Freeman is not going to like this post.

Jason said...

A dearth of it? Isn't that a good thing?

Jeff Quest said...

A great use of narration in the UK show "Peep Show." It's rarely used as exposition, instead you get a stream of conscious look all the awkward and outrageous things it's two lead characters are thinking. Some truly hilarious writing.

Michael said...

Friday question: In articles about the new CBS streaming service, it is mentioned that CHEERS is included because it was a CBS show. Do you know if it was sold to NBC only after CBS decided not to air it on their own network?

Kathleen said...

Thank you, Ken. I am working on a play and toying with the idea of using a narrator, but your post has made me stop and think, "Why do you need the narrator and what value will that add to the play?"

Regarding TV shows, I think Magnum PI employed the narration effectively. I agree that the mocumentary has become overused, especially in Modern Family. Worked great for The Office, but comes across as glib in MF.

Douglas Trapasso said...

I'm pretty much in agreement on this one, but I will cite The Wonder Years and Goodfellas as two times narration really helped put us in the time/place of the story.

Johnny Walker said...

"And lately there seems to be a dearth of narration on television, especially among new shows."

Confused by this sentence. Doesn't "dearth" mean a "scarcity"? If so, wouldn't you be happy? If are you just letting us know that the trend has reduced itself lately?

Either way, I completely agree with you. There are times when it's done brilliantly, but there are others when it's a lazy crutch. (Thought bubbles in comics are the same -- a lazy crutch to tell the audience what the character is thinking.)

The worst example I saw recently (and I guess it was actually a while ago) was the beginning of THOR 2. It was just an incredibly dull information dump about the bad guys... people we'd never heard of before, I might add, considering it's a sequel. I couldn't believe how lazy it was.

Again, there are exceptions. Lord of the Rings did a big information dump at the beginning of the first film, masterfully. But Thor's was unbelievably bad if you ask me.

Loosehead said...

Then I must be the only person who actually prefers Blade Runner WITH the voice over. A film noir, even in colour with a sci-fi theme, needs a voice over by the hard-bitten hero. The fact that Harrison Ford was virtually held at gunpoint to do it, just makes it sound more realistic. And I did get the bit with the unicorn.

Jason Roberts said...

Narration was a problem Sony/Columbia Pictures had with the movie Radio Flyer. Originally Michael Douglas (one of the Producers) recorded the narration, but it didn't work as his voice didn't reflect the younger version played by Elijah Wood. During production the cast Tom Hanks as his older version and shot bookend scenes with Tom. However, it too didn't help the movie. The main reason was that Tom was narrating what the audience was already watching. It didn't add anything new, just constricted the movie goers mind to imagine things a certain way instead of coming up with it their own. That being said I still like the movie and the Director Richard Donner.

Pete Grossman said...

GOODFELLAS - Now that's some good narration.

Dan Ball said...

One of my all-time favorite narrations is Jack Lemmon in THE APARTMENT.

Supposedly, Jack Nicholson narrated CHINATOWN, but it was so horrid that they scrapped it. Probably a good call, there since the movie is pretty close to perfection in its current state.

Two instances it was used a lot and every word dripped with fun: POLICE SQUAD!/NAKED GUN and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Having a narrator say the truth while showing a character acting on what they think is the truth is automatically funny.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I like being left to figure a story out. It flatters my intelligence, which is prone to constant failure. "Lucky Louie" did this and it was quickly cancelled by HBO.
If "2001 A Space Odyssey" had been made in this century by someone other than Kubrick we would have had John Alfenito's friend Morgan Freeman narrating.

KenNYC said...

How do you feel about Arrested Development? The narration is such an integral part of the concept. Without it, you don't have the same show.

Curt Alliaume said...

A to Z, which is one of my favorites this fall (I appear to be the only one in that group, judging by the ratings), uses Katey Sagal as narrator. I don't know if I consider it lazy - as with How I Met Your Mother, there's a lot of shifting back and forth in time, so some explanation seems necessary.

Emmett Flatus said...

"...(like in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where the entire conceit of the show was the father talking to his kids)..."

Though I've never watched even one episode of this show I've heard it does contain quite a bit of conceit.

Sheldrake said...

"In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing."

-- Billy Wilder

Sue Preston said...

'Dearth' means a scarcity or lack of something, i.e., the opposite of what you intend to say. No?

Covarr said...

From what I've seen, it tends to be more deliberate and better executed in movies than on TV. In both A CHRISTMAS STORY and MATILDA, it really helps the atmosphere and personality.

What it boils down to is that, like any writing device ever conceived, writers need to ask themselves why they're using it before they use it. If they can't answer that, or if that answer isn't something for the embetterment of the show (yes that's a word now), then it should be cut.

Of course, this applies to writing in general, regardless of the medium.

Chester said...

A device similar to narration is talking to a documentary film crew, used somewhat effectively in "The Office" (though why a crew would be following the same office workers for 10 years is beyond me!)

The same device is used in "Modern Family"--but without a similar rationale There's no real sense that any of the three families have a crew following the around--they just talk to an off-camera third party whenever the moment requires a punchline. It's really artificial and irksome... but I have to admit it works.

Go figure.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@Scooter Schechtman said...
If "2001 A Space Odyssey" had been made in this century by someone other than Kubrick we would have had John Alfenito's friend Morgan Freeman narrating.

If anything, they would have had HAL9000 narrate it and we would have been surprised only at the end that the narrator was not human.
Of course, 2001 had little dialogue as it was, and a narrator would have made it understandable. Great movie but does anyone know what it's about??

cd1515 said...

not sure if Ken was involved in these, but I seem to remember a few Cheers episodes that started with Coach or Cliff or Woody doing a recap of where things stood now or what had happened previously.

would that also count as lazy?

J. Allison said...

Agree strongly with your point here, Ken. Narration is almost always just laziness. I liked Scrubs, but I never liked how we had to hear Zach Braff do a voiceover at the end explaining the story we JUST SAW. Are you so unsure of your writing that you have to offer up a summary at the end telling the audience what they're supposed to take away?

Lance said...

"The Wonder Years" and "Stand by Me" used narration effectively. Just sayin'.

Michael said...

Friday question: Do writers get any residual payments when episodes you wrote get added to streaming services like Netflix? If so, how are they determined?

A.B. said...

Hi Ken,

I'm assuming you came up with the title for "A or B?" prior to "A to Z" getting picked up to series, right? Did you then ever consider changing the title of your play?

Howard Hoffman said...

GROWING UP FISHER really confused the hell out of me. Here was a sitcom set in 2014, yet it was narrated by the son as an adult talking about how all this happened. Sometimes the device goes so far out of the box, you forget what was in the box to begin with.

Jeannie said...

But you've gotta love the dead narrator in "Sunset Boulevard." Billy Wilder used Holden's voice sparingly, yet brilliantly. I'd also hate to see a noir movie without the great narration many of the classic detective story/mob noirs have.

RG said...

Friday question that I have been curious about. With respect to creating the Woody character on Cheers: (1) was the character description very specific when the casting call went out (age, naivete; etc. and (2) did the writers already have the name Woody or did it come about by someone realizing Woody Harrelson's real first name was the perfect name for that character?

KevinM said...

I also am liking A to Z, but am still a little on the fence. I like the lead characters, but I think the supporting characters, especially the character of Lydia the Wallflower manager/boss are too unrealistic. And what are they going to title Season 3 Episode 3?

Which brings up a Friday Question:

In A to Z, they are titling each episode alphabetically: A is for Acquaintances, B is for B... etc. Which means each episode is kind of locked into place. You can't take 'M is for M...,' for example and broadcast it as the 8th episode. Have shows you've worked on had to switch episode order, and how did the writing rooms change the episodes to deal with the continuity problems?

KevinM said...

I meant: What are they going to title Season 2 Episode 3?

-bee said...


This post reminds me of a film I forgot to put on my list yesterday of films-I-hate-that-everyone-loves: which is Goodfellas, my major beef being the constant droning voice-over unnecessarily telling us what we already see. I used to call the film the world's most expensive slide show ("now here we are in the club", "now here we are in my apartment" "that afternoon we went to the bar..."). I found it unbearable.

But I think narration is OK as long as it isn't excessive, adds something we do not see or illuminates character. In the movie Badlands the way the horrific/hilarious narration of sociopathic Holly is essential to the meaning of the film.

As for a great piece of narration, I turn to the final speech (SPOILER WARNING)from the narrator ("Chorus") of Henry V:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world's best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

Stephen Robinson said...

GOODFELLAS is one of my favorite movies, but to Bee's point, I wonder if the narration was used *because* it was based on a book where the narrative voice was strong and compelling. It's like how *every* adaptation of GATSBY has voice-over narration simply because it's impossible to imagine it without Fitzgerald's prose.

The recent GATSBY film even kept the narrative description of Gatsby's smile. Guys, you paid DiCaprio $20 million -- let his own smile do the work of Fitzgerald's words.

Although based on a book, FIGHT CLUB is one of the examples I give of effective use of narration. Given the eventual plot revelation, it's important that we know upfront that we shouldn't take everything we see as gospel -- we are dealing with the definition of unreliable narrator. Remove narration and flashback (two things I often advise against) in that film and the audience will feel cheated. (Similar technique was used in the USUAL SUSPECTS)

A defense of narration in films such as GOODFELLAS or CLOCKWORK ORANGE is that it's necessary for the protagonist to build a rapport with the audience, to confide in us in such a way that we become complicit in his world, that we identify with him in a way that we wouldn't or shouldn't in real life.

Narration in film versions of GATSBY is just lazy writing. It's attempting to swim the English Channel and giving up halfway through and taking a boat. A version of GATSBY on film that abandons voiceover entirely will score instant points with me. Yes, it will be hard, almost impossible, but that's the challenge I want to see a filmmaker take. In fact, I'd like that to be the *reason* the filmmaker takes the job.

The documentary style of narration used in MODERN FAMILY and THE OFFICE makes no sense to me. I didn't like it when I first saw it in HUSBANDS AND WIVES (a film I enjoy but thought suffers because of its use).

It's especially problematic in MF, when I'm not even sure if the characters are actively being filmed and what the interview segments accomplish aside from being classic "telling and not showing" examples. If you're going to use this technique, I'd imagine it would be to reveal the Rashamon nature of stories -- how we experience things differently from each other -- or how we behave differently on camera than not.

Worse, it just makes it feel like a reality TV show -- without actually being a trenchant commentary on reality TV's lack of "reality."

BigTed said...

To be fair, Woody Allen practically invented comedic self-narration in "Annie Hall," where it's used to brilliant effect. But that was when he had a unique voice that hadn't yet been copied, diluted and squandered, both by others and in his own later work.

jcs said...

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA had a narrator? Well, I guess I was mostly paying attention to Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall.

Stephen Robinson said...

BigTed said...
To be fair, Woody Allen practically invented comedic self-narration in "Annie Hall," where it's used to brilliant effect. But that was when he had a unique voice that hadn't yet been copied, diluted and squandered, both by others and in his own later work.


I agree. I also think the narration serves a dramatic purpose: The film begins like a stand-up act and it's clear that Alvy is telling us the story of his life and relationship with Annie Hall, which justifies a lot of the flights of fancy we see. Somewhat like FIGHT CLUB -- though certainly different in tone! -- everything is within Alvy's head. He "controls" the world we're seeing.

Films that have copied ANNIE HALL's style have lacked the element, so the fourth-wall breaking winds up jarring and pulling the audience out of the story. ALLEN himself makes that mistake in WHATEVER WORKS.

Matt said...

Good choice of words with "plethora."

It is such a nice word.

Barry Traylor said...

I have not watched many of them but doesn't Modern Family break the fourth wall?

D. McEwan said...

The narration in House of Cards is part of its roots. It is, after all, a conscious modern retelling of Shakespeare's MacBeth and Richard III. (This was even more apparent in the British original, where Mrs. Urquart was really Lady MacBeth.) The narrations there are actually soliloquies.

Another place where a narrator is acceptable is in adapting famous literary works where the author's voice and prose is a big part of it. I have no objection to using narration in a Dickens adaptation, provided that it is 100% Dickens's prose.

In yesterday's post there was a bit of back-and-forth about Kubrick's Lolita, and part of what is missing is more of Humbert Humbert's (Nabakov's) distinctive narrative voice. Kubrick uses teensy amounts of it, and always as Humbert's diary, which then figures into the plot when Charlotte Haze finds and reads his journal.

When I adapted Dracula for the stage, 40 years ago, I included some bits of narration here and there, not because I needed it to clarify action, but to include some memorable bits of Stoker's prose. In that case, they were passages from Harker's journal that we saw him writing onstage. Then later, in Act II, that journal becomes important to the plot, as it is how many of the characters learn what the hell is actually going on. It was used only in scenes that came from Harker's journal.

Similarly, I have no problem with a tiny bit of narration in Sherlock Holmes adaptations, where we know they come from Watson's Diary and later-published accounts.

And in stories that are flashback-heavy because characters are filling another person in on something (Again, often in Sherlock Holmes), a bit of narration is acceptable.

DBenson said...

Scanned comments and saw no mention of WONDER YEARS, which made excellent use of narration. Perhaps influenced by A CHRISTMAS STORY, it didn't so much carry exposition as expand Kevin's inner life to include his adult hindsight and perspective.

A favorite early moment had young Kevin hauled to the office for throwing an apple in a fit of anger. The principal sternly asks "Just what did you hope to accomplish by throwing that apple?"

"World peace!," says the narrator.

"I dunno," says the intimidated Kevin. You got that Kevin either did or soon would have that perfect squelch, but not the nerve to use it.

I like narration best when it's clearly (and often comically) biased. Adult Kevin Arnold could be thoughtful and reflective on what young Kevin was barely coping with, even when amused by his own youthful angst. He also set up the fantasy scenes, such as Kevin as Captain Kirk trying to comprehend the powerful alien life form that is girls.

The narrator on Rocky and Bullwinkle (William Conrad) was insanely excited and earnest, making bizarre gags even more so. In START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME, Orson Welles pulls similar duty, lending mock gravitas to an over-the-top narration. It was not so much exposition as to remind us what genre was being spoofed.

A character writing or telling a tale can be revealingly self-serving, clueless, or frank in a way he/she wouldn't be in the moment and/or with other characters. The Flashman novels wouldn't be near as much fun if the coward/lecher/opportunist hero wasn't proudly recounting his misdeeds first person.

Breadbaker said...

My understanding from Ralph Rosenblum's book is that the narrative in Annie Hall was added afterward in the editing process and wasn't part of the original plan.

But Allen has included what I considered the clunkiest method of narrative exposition imaginable to numerous films since: the second person exposition.

Example would be me telling Ken, "But you're only the guy who has both won Emmys and been the broadcaster for major league teams." Every time I heard it I wanted to throw something at the screen. Real people do not tell real people facts about them they obviously already know.

Rowan said...

Holy moly do I agree with you on this! All the way around and constantly am advising new writers not to use narration unless there is a damn good reason. Show us - don't tell us.

For Jim S. - It worked on Malcolm in the Middle because the show was telling us a story through Malcolm's eyes. What we were seeing was through the filter of a kid;'s brain. It wasn't meant to be an accurate representation of his family. Bernie Mac worked because, again, we were in his head.

House of Cards works because (the working theory is) he's dictating his memoirs, so again, the character is providing us a filter (like that episode of MASH Ken talked about) through which we are hearing the story.

stinkerpinker said...

Many fans of PG Woodhouse's books have stated they don't think that his works can be successfully translated to film or TV, because so much of the books are narration or thoughts in people's minds or word-play descriptions. I'd love to hear how you might go about adapting something like that, Ken. Or ... can you? Best to just leave it in book form?

Bob in the UK said...

MODERN FAMILY really isn't a mockumentary. It may have started out that way (but it was always far less important to the show than it was to, say, THE OFFICE or PARKS AND RECREATION), but all three shows abandoned the conceit fairly quickly (until THE OFFICE'S last season, where it became a plot point for a while).

The so-called mockumentary moments are much closer in nature to those bits in Shakespeare plays when a character wanders away from a scene to soliloquise briefly - a window into a character apart from their interaction with other characters. That's my reading of it, anyway.

I like the technique, personally, although its time has definitely passed.

Johnny Walker said...

Stinkerpinker: I think that's true to some degree. Wodehouse's descriptions are largely where the comedy comes from, I think. The stories are not all that great, the characters often interchangeable. I'm reading The Code of the Woosters at the moment, and the enjoyment really does come from his playful use of language. ("I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled")

That said, I think Fry and Laurie did a great job with the "Jeeves and Wooster" TV show... surely even for fans of Wodehouse's estimations?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Now that I think about it, some of my favorite movies are narrated ("The Magnificent Ambersons," "Murder My Sweet," "Radio Days," "The Third Man"). As D. McEwan and bee remind us, it's a venerable device from the theatre, where poets described what the stage could not show.

When I saw the title of this post, I was hoping it would be about something I detest, the use of music to take up space in dramas like "Cold Case" and now "The Black List." It always feels like the writers decided to knock off early and wrote "Yadda yadda yadda, fill in with some pop song, maybe Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'." If you have nothing more to say, can I go get a snack?

Snoskred said...

I loved how they used narration on Dexter - at least for the first few seasons. It helped us know what Dexter was thinking, which was fairly important. Plus, Michael C Hall can really say so much more than the words on the page just with tone of his voice.

The first two seasons of that show are in my belief two stunningly perfect seasons of television. If only it ended after season two. :) But no, Showtime had to ride that pony until it completely collapsed.. season four was decent with John Lithgow, but from season 5 onward it was just an awful mess. :(

Barbara C. said...

I think it fits really well with something like Call the Midwives, which is based on someone's memoirs. (And the comic relief skit where the actors keep mocking Vanessa Redgrave's narration is just hilarious.)

Sometimes with Revenge, though, it just comes off as melodramatic, and not in a good way.

Charles Emerson Losechester said...

Subtlety is the key to breaking the fourth wall.

The undisputed champ, hands down, the gold standard, is Eddie Murphy in TRADING PLACES where he stares at the camera, just for a second, after having been explained what bacon is by the two rich old white men who have essentially kidnapped him.

It simply doesn't get any better than this.

VP81955 said...

Hope you don't mind me going OT, Ken, but I note today marks the 74th anniversary of the birth of the late Ellie Greenwich, one of your favorites and mine.

In Ellie's honor, here's a link to a song she and then-husband Jeff Barry wrote for Connie Francis in 1964, when Connie was faced with taking on the British invasion. As you can tell from this record, aesthetically she did quite nicely; commercially, it peaked at 42.

And one more thing, Ken. Ellie was an East Coast lady, with a lot of Brill Building in her, but one of her West Coast equivalents still lacks a star on the Walk of Fame. I am of course referring to Jackie De Shannon.

ScottyB said...

I agree with @Jim S way up there at the top on 'The Bernie Mac Show', except for a different reason. I never got the impression that Bernie Mac was specifically narrating when he did his wrap-up at the very end. That was all him, not him just as narrator guy.

For me, 'The Wonder Years' used narration, but in a way (and sparingly but effectively, if I recall) that added to the character of the show, as if the narration was one of the characters.

Same thing with 'Everybody Loves Chris', altho even I admit too much of Chris Rock's voice could become too annoying in the same way too much narration by Gilbert Gottfried could become.

Which makes me thing twice now, given Ken's post: Would 'A Christmas Story' and that stupid fucking BB gun be better or worse without the narration?

ScottyB said...

Ellie Greenwich may have been awesome, but she'll never, ever hold a candle to Natalie Wood. I'm with Ken on that.

'This Property Is Condemned' is a piece of amazing cinema that is extremely overlooked.

jbryant said...

My favorite use of narration is in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. It's usually in comic counterpoint to the visuals, so you never feel like you're just being told what you're already seeing. And ditto to bee's mention of BADLANDS, another great narration.

I watched the first episode of A to Z, and I can't say the Katie Sagal narration bothered me much. I was too busy being charmed by the stars and laughing at the dialogue. I had no intention of sampling this show until I saw a clip that Cristin Milioti showed when she was on CONAN the other night. I got about four good laughs in that brief clip, more than I get in a typical half hour these days. I don't suppose the show will last, but kudos to Ben Queen for creating a modern rom-com sitcom that works.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I like it when the narration introduces themes, like in Sex and the City. It can also be used to round off a story more quickly and give the audience a sense of conclusion on a deeper level than 'what happened'. But it has to be an intergral part of the show. Having said that, the 'documentary' rlrmrny og Moern Family are not integrated at all and work - probably just because of good writing.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

On the show Soap, the Narrator was the most interesting character in some episodes.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

For all the hatred for Modern Family on this board, some people sure like to write about it. I for one have never watched one episode. Nor, do I plan to based on these comments.

Stuart Best said...

I'm glad you brought up Vicky Christina Barcelona. Did you also notice that the narration was not only lazy, but also superfluous? "Vicky and Christina spent the day shopping and they most enjoyed buying chocolates at a quaint store downtown," says the narrator, while we watch Vicky and Christina shopping and buying chocolates in a candy store. Why is the narrator even telling us this?

I thought this movie was the best example of how a Woody Allen movie could have been made better with just a bit more thought and some gentle editing. At its core was a great movie, but it was reduced by those slapdash elements. What was most painful about the narration was that I knew Woody could do better (because he has done much better) but simply chose to rush into production, as he always does.

Marty Fufkin said...

Scooter and Bumble Bee: 2001 actually did have narration in the script, and Kubrick was set to use it until he got into post production and decided it would ruin the mood. (Similarly, he dropped the score written by Alex North and used the classical music he originally intended as a placeholder soundtrack for production only.)

D. McEwan said...

I was going to write another long comment here, but I'm just to tir.....

D. McEwan said...

In fact, I was apparently too tired to type the second "o" in "too."

Jeff :) said...

While I certainly agree with Ken, I have a theory as to why many new shows are resorting to this tactic. With the overwhelming plethora of shows currently on television, many of which are serialized, it can be confusing trying to keep characters, story arcs, etc. (from what may be dozens of shows you're involved with) straight.

I think some of these shows are simply using narration as a bit of briefing in case you've missed an episode, especially if that episode was the Pilot. I take the show Arrow as an example. In the first season the main character gave a narration that basically just went over the main concept of the show. He's a vigilante, trying to save the city, evil bad guys lurking, etc. That way if you missed the Pilot, at least you weren't utterly confused as to what was going on.

Anonymous said...

It bothers me when the trailers do it. It's OK for something like Daylight,'In Manhattan 8 million people... they go over the water or under it'

However, anytime I hear,'In a story about...' I know they've flopped. They couldn't show us what it was about?

Steve Bailey said...

Mr. Levine: After reading this blog entry, I happened to look up the pilot episode for the short-lived "AfterMASH," written by you and your partner. Seems as though you used a lot of narrative exposition to bring us up to speed on Klinger's stateside woes. Was this a case of you breaking your own rule?