Thursday, September 25, 2008

Five seconds into that new BBC Merlin thing

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I really have watched hardly any of Merlin so far; the voiceover and score instantly made me so cross I needed to get it out of my system. I thought it probably wasn't fair to watch the rest of it while I was in such a bad mood, so will get back to it later. TREMBLE IN YOUR BOOTS BBC.

Dear British Television People,

Look, you fucks, stop insisting every last bloody series has to have a voiceover on it! You're only doing it because the Americans do it. Yes, alright, sometimes a voiceover brings something extra: in Dexter, for example, there's a whole level of irony generated by contrasting Dexter's outward appearance (neat, clean, polite) with the reality (smirking serial killer), as well as bringing some of the flavour of Jeff Lynsey's original novels (in fact I reckon adaptations get a free pass for use of voiceovers generally).

In Arrested Development, Ron Howard's narration allows focus to shift between a large number of characters with the minimum loss of momentum. The narrator himself also starts to become a character in his own right as the series goes on, although not all the viewers approved.

The rot started though, with Pushing Daisies, the start of which went something like this:

A boy runs across a field.

NARRATOR: This is a boy running across a field.

The boy's dog dies. He brings it back to life.

NARRATOR: The boy's dog died. But look, then he brought it back to life!

ME: Yes, I can see that. Because it just happened.

NARRATOR: I wasn't sure if you were looking.

ME: I was looking.

NARRATOR: But what if you blink? OH GOD, WHAT IF YOU BLINK!

ME: You're going to do this all through the entire episode aren't you?

The boy grows up and opens a pie shop.

NARRATOR: And then the boy grew up and opened a pie shop.

I decide never to watch Pushing Daisies again.

ME: I decided, right then, never to watch Pushing Daisies again.


This happens, you see, because the American networks are all too horribly aware that their show is just one of five hundred alternate distractions, and that if at any moment you get confused about what's happening on screen, you'll just wander off and fall down a mine, and never watch any television ever again. Consequently, just seeing what's happening on screen isn't enough; the viewer needs it laying out in black and white at the same time, in case they become confused, freak out, and fall down that mine again.

Which means, if you're working on television series over in the States at the moment, and increasingly, it seems, over here, the chances are you'll be asked to work a voiceover into at least the pilot episode. Which completely fucks over the whole point of screenwriting, which is to show, not tell. You may as well retitle The Sixth Sense: 'OMG He's Dead'. Voiceovers also give those screenwriters who are frustrated novelists (most of us) the chance to use all the pompous verbiage they've had stored up since sixth form. The results aren't pretty.

So here's the new rule: if there's a valid, story-enhancing reason to use a voiceover, then by all means, go mental. If the only reason you're putting one in is because some suit is worried stupid people won't be able to follow the action, tell him or her you don't want to make television for stupid people. And if fact, those stupid people mostly exist on the suit's imagination anyway. And then PUNCH THE SUIT IN THE FACE.

Right. *puts Merlin back on*

Almost immediately:


*passes out*

Still, that's ten seconds further than I got with Bonekickers.


Boz said...

Welcome to My Ten Cents with Boz.. (again)

- Richard Wilson - did they not decide what they actually want from that character, and instead just decided to change him around in every scene?

- I actually don't mind that he called Arthur a prat. This is, after all, a kids show.

- Camelot is susiciously clean.

- He went down about ten steps to get into that cellar - WITH THE HUGE CAVERNOUS ROOF GOING UPWARDS. And wasn't at all freaked out by a talking Dragon. Hmm.

I find more and more the best rants are the ones I don't know are right at the surface and just brimming to explode themselves on the world.

PS: Eve Myles was good.

David Lemon said...

Er, kind of liked it myself. First episodes are always tricky in terms of setting everything up, but I thought it struck a pretty neat balance- and the voice over (by JOHN HURT!!) seemed appropriate given we were going into a tale that's equal parts TH White and 'Smallville'.
That said, I'm with you on 'Pushing Daisies'. I'd normally be a sucker for Amelie meets Tim Burton style kookiness, but the repetitive nature of the voice over ('he's loved her for ten years, six months etc.') did get a bit much.

James Henry said...

Yeah, I should make it clear I'm just having a totally unfair rant based on the first few seconds triggering all my angry zones. Will watch the rest of it properly at some point (I actually got as far as the old lady shouting at Giles and then exploding, before I was seized by the urge to blog).

Good luck with Faintheart btw David, been intrigued by what I've heard of it so far.

BlackLOG said...

Sadly the suit's imagination, normally so dull and out of step with life, are probably, all be it accidentally*, correct about the number of stupid people watching TV. How else can you explain the popularity of Soaps, Big Brother and Reality TV in general. Think of the number of decent shows, particularly in America that get canned because they are over sophisticated for the main stream audience. So by all means twat the suits in the face but in fairness remember to think "My god they got something right!" as you do it.

* remember even a broken watch will show the correct time twice a day....

Benjamin Russell said...

Well, I can't speak for the New Merlin Thing, as I couldn't deal with the trailer and doubt I could deal with the show, but in Pushing Daisies the voiceover is largely to help reinforce the deliberate storybook nature of the show. Obviously, there is an annoying propensity for v/o in American TV right now (the one-two punch of Desperate Housewives and Veronica Mars almost did me in a couple of years ago), but it's rarely being done without Dexter-esque reasons, where the narrator is flawed or ironic or dead or something that is supposed to add to the tone of and therefore audience expectations for the show.

Anonymous said...

I did manage to watch the first episode of Pushing Daisies as I convinced myself that the annoying voice-over would eventually stop, but it didn't!

Mike Booth said...

I've never heard of Pushing Daisies, but they do that "THIS IS WHAT JUST HAPPENED" voiceover on Dragon's Den too.

I wonder if executives think that everybody watches telly while Taking Important Calls or getting fellated or something, so they need constant reminders of what's going on.

Robin Kelly said...

I'm with Benjamin on this. While most voice-overs are short-cuts to telling the story properly, Pushing Daisies doesn't fall into that category.

Anonymous said...

Gray's Anatomy has a voice-over worse than Desperate Housewives. And that takes some doing.

Vicus Scurra said...

I am glad you were just having a rant, because I watched Merlin without getting at all upset.
What will get me going eventually is the other import "coming up", whereby a 40 minute programme, already stretched over an hour is further shortened by having a "coming up" at the end of each part, and a recap at the beginning of the next. I suppose it is for the benefit of those without a sky box who are unable to fast forward through the five minute ad breaks and have forgotten their own bloody names let alone what the programme is about by the time they have been soaked in industrial accident ads.

Michael Cook said...

I really, really hate pointless voiceover too, but I think they may just about have got away with it on Merlin, especially if in episode 13, there is a bit where the dragon says it all again in some better context.

Can't forgive them Richard Wilson's wig, though. Didn't they have baldies in ye olden dayes?

Jayne said...

Haven't got round to watching Merlin yet and now I'm wondering if I should bother. If it turns out to be The Next Big Thing (aka The New Doctor Who) because of you I shall be very annoyed.

Given that, the bloody VO in Pushing Daisies put me right off as well. Managed 2 eps before I deleted the series link on my Sky+ and cast it into oblivion...

Valerie said...

Well, they did it with Bladerunner, and obviously it worked so well there...

James Henry said...

Ooh, you know what? I actually liked the VO in Bladerunner. As a stylistic thing, it did tie the story in with film noir, plus I was about twelve when I saw it, so to be honest it did help me understand what was going on.

I like the original happy ending as well.


Robin Kelly said...

I also liked the original Bladerunner V.O. and ending for the same reasons. I never thought I'd ever admit that. I feel strangely liberated.

James Henry said...


Now, who else likes the first Resident Evil film?


Anonymous said...

You never got through any of Bonekickers? So you never saw the preserved, pink and sparkly body of Boudica. I feel very sorry for you. TV of that calibre comes along but rarely.

Piers said...

Me! I like the first Resident Evil film!

And I also love Bonekickers!

James Henry said...

I think Bonekickers is one of those weird shows that if it had been ten per cent more bonkers, would have worked.

Unknown said...

I'm guessing that the voice overs are for the visually impaired or the intellectually challenged. Otherwise, I'm really quite puzzled as to why this new trend in voicing the obvious is becoming the new thing. Someone at the bbc is surely taste- and drama-sense challenged! Painfully obnoxious, inanely obvious. What a step forward! Chapeau! Please stop, now...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I kinda gave up on caring what you thought when you said you hadn't watched it.

Another John

James Henry said...

Seriously though, did I not make it clear enough this wasn't a review of the first episode of Merlin, but rather the first few seconds pressing all the wrong buttons?

I'm not sure how I could have made this clearer.