There was an article in this morning’s paper reporting that a satellite broadcasting service is adding subtitles to the show Damages, to assist the audience in understanding Damages’ convoluted storyline, an executive from the company explaining, “We want to fill in the blanks for viewers.”
This practice may seem a little odd, but it is not entirely without precedent. I will speak only about comedies, since I have never written a drama, nor have I ever been confused by the storylines of the dramatic series I was drawn to.
I was never confused watching The Rockford Files.
Jim Rockford would be solicited by a mysterious, beautiful woman, he would say he wasn’t interested in the job, then change his mind, then he’d stick his nose in where it didn’t belong and get beaten up for his efforts (sometimes, his car would also get beaten up), and in the end, Rockford would solve the crime and subdue the perpetrators, and then the police would arrive, when there was nothing left to do but cart the evildoers away. That pretty much covered every Rockford Files episode I ever saw.
No subtitles were ever required.
Apparently, comedy audiences of that era were considered to need a little more help. A show like M*A*S*H, which was not filmed in front of a live audience, was required to include a laugh track, the rationale being the network’s belief that, without a laugh track, the audience would be unable to determine that M*A*S*H was a comedy.
What else could it be? A half-hour drama that refused to take itself seriously?
Today, NBC has a Thursday night lineup of six comedies, filmed without a laugh track, and nobody confuses them with CSI: Miami.
On the other hand, none of these comedies does anywhere near as well as M*A*S *H did in the ratings. So maybe,
The network was right.
Maybe the audience is confused. Maybe they need some directional assistance, like the hour shows that are attacking the “audience comprehension problem” with explanatory subtitles.
I am hoping for something more subtle than a flashing reminder, saying,
“This show is a comedy.”
Or, God forbid, the return of the laugh track.
How about, instead, hiring an experienced comedy writer to supplement the program with subtitles, explaining to the audience why what they have just witnessed is funny.
This could be really helpful. A character in the show would deliver a punch line, and a subtitle would flash at the bottom of the screen, saying something like,
“This joke is funny, because, less than five seconds earlier, the character expressed precisely the opposite point of view.”
“This is funny, because she has just insulted the man, and he’s taking it as a compliment.”
“This is funny, because, after disparagingly opining that, ‘Drugs are a crutch!’ she immediately downs an enormous tumbler of vodka.”
“This is funny, because what the character has accidentally overheard will lead to an enormous misunderstanding down the line.”
“This is funny, because she said the word, ‘ass’ on television, and she wasn’t referring to a donkey or to foolish behavior, she meant the actual body part.”
“This is funny, because having a balance of four dollars and sixty-two cents – which the character revealed in an earlier scene – can hardly be considered, what he has just told a woman he is trying to impress, as having “a substantial amount of money in my savings account.”
“This action is funny, because it is always funny for a man to take a blow directly to the genitals.”
“This is funny, because it’s an embarrassing slip of the tongue carrying sexual connotations, and she just blurted it to her boss, for whom she secretly harbors overpowering feelings of lust.”
“This is funny, because it’s funny for a previously identified heterosexual man to be found in a Department Store Dressing Room, primping in front of a mirror, attired entirely in women’s underclothing.”
“This is funny, because the character said the word, “Pumpernickel.”
Okay, you get the idea. And feel free to offer examples of your own.
It would appear to me – and I’m speaking here as a viewer rather than a veteran writer of television programming, that it is exceedingly unlikely that a show will increase its popularity by treating its audience as if they were stupid.
A wiser approach, I would suggest, would be for the shows, if they’re dramas, to make comprehensible sense, and if they’re comedies, to actually be funny.
Of course, I could be speaking for fourteen people here. The people who already knew that M*A*S*H was a comedy.
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