The Negatives of Narration

11 Dec


I’ve railed in public and private, in writing and in talking, to friends and to random strangers, about the overuse of narration on television. Don’t get me wrong; when done right, narration can add to a show, and I’ll list my favorite example of narration done right at the end to finish on a positive note. Ninety percent of the time, though, narration is a lazy narrative gimmick choice for a television show which saves the writers some work but takes away from the show. Here’s several reasons why.

1. Narration eliminates subtlety

As I mentioned above, I think narration on television is almost always a bad idea, but my most recent bete noire for the cause is How I Met Your Mother, which stands as a shining example of just about every rule against narration. Narration is often a patronizing device to help explain to viewers concepts and jokes that the show is not confident we’ll figure out otherwise. A character will explain something, and we, as smart 21st century viewers, can figure out what’s going on, and of course,if we can’t, our friends and the internet will tell us. Not to worry though, if you don’t, because the character chimes in with some narration explaining what just happened, illuminating something to a small section of the audience while making most of the viewers smack their heads. Dexter is a champion of this kind of narration. An interaction between Dexter and someone else will happen which the viewers will obviously understand and then Dexter will chime in explaining needlessly what just happened. Not only is this patronizing, but it eliminates any sense of ambiguity and subtlety which good television thrives on. There is such a thing as being too subtle, but it’s always never a problem on television, while the opposite is a constant problem.

2. Narration is a lazy, easy way to send a message, by telling when the show should be showing

Television shows are called shows for a reason. How I Met Your Mother, Sex and the City, and Scrubs are just three of the shows that engage in this behavior constantly. While my first complaint applies mostly to plot points and actions within a show, this applies to the giving of greater meaning behind those plot points. The show is trying to explain to us something about life, from finer small points ot the big picture. This is patronizing as well, but more lazy than patronizing. If a smart, quality show has a message it wants to send, it tries to craft its story and dialogue to get that message across through the normal events of the show. A lazy show has events and dialogue but makes sure to just straight out tell you want it wants you to learn, concerned that you won’t be able to get it from the events and dialogue.

3. Narration wrecks comic timing and overtells jokes.

This is particularly true, really for comedies, and is similar to point 2. There’s a comic timing that dialogue has that is hard to mimic through narration. I know I keep picking on How I Met Your Mother, but their narration-based jokes are amongst the worst jokes the series has to offer, including the recurring “What I did say” bits where a character says something that they didn’t actually say, and then Bob Saget introduces what they actually said, and it’s supposed to be funny because it’s the opposite. It is possible to make solid narration jokes but it’s more common that narration ruins the natural timing of dialogue and drives an obvious joke into the ground. Even Arrested Development’s narration, which is among the better examples in television, happens up this occasionally when the narrator says the opposite to make a joke that is better off unsaid because everyone can get the point without it.

4. Narration is often used for heavy moralizing

This is related to 2 as well, and is a particular pet peeve of mine. Many shows have some sort of message they’re trying to get across, but some shows really try to teach you a lesson. Good messaging doesn’t feel like getting taught a lesson, but bad messaging lays it on really thick and feels like a lecture. How I Met Your Mother, once again, is a particularly bad offender. I don’t want advice from older Ted about the right way to live my life. Related to point 2, even if they felt How I Met Your Mother felt it really had to teach us something about the right way to live, it should do it through its storyline and not through older Ted just blurting out what’s right. That said, this point is more towards the fact that I never want a show straight out telling me what’s wrong or right and that rarely happens as clearly on shows without narration.

Certainly not all narration is terrible and while assembling entire list of my favorite examples of narration might require an entire other article, I’ll at least note my favorite recent television narration, which is on Peep Show, a British sitcom. In Peep Show, the narration is a stream of consciousness from both protagonists Mark and Jeremy, and instead of feeling like a high school essay being read, or a well-rehearsed story told dozens of times, the narration truly feels like their ongoing thought process and is an extremely important element of what makes the show hilarious, rather than an extraneous and unnecessary aspect

3 Responses to “The Negatives of Narration”

  1. Holly angel December 13, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    Bizimle aydınlatıcı girişi paylaşım için teşekkürler. Bir televizyon veya bilgisayar izlerken olsun, bence her şey 2 yönlerini, olumlu ve olumsuz yönleri vardır, bu yüzden her şey bir displine ile yapılabilir sholud.

  2. debenhams evening dresses sale January 12, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be actually one thing that I feel I might never understand. It kind of feels too complicated and extremely large for me. I am having a look forward on your next submit, I will attempt to get the hang of it!


  1. End of Season Report: House of Cards, Season 2 | Television, the Drug of the Nation - March 15, 2014

    […] to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. It plays right into my much­-ballyhooed (by me) dangers of narration. We get it, Kevin Spacey, I mean Frank Underwood, we see almost every step of your plans, your […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: