It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this fall has lacked a breakout hit — so far, the CW has the best average when it comes to critical approval for its series, and that’s not a good sign.
It’s of course an awkward transition time, with many cable series wrapping up their runs, and broadcast networks struggling to remain relevant. And there are bright spots — Showtime’s “The Affair” came out of the gate strong, while “Gotham” is building a fan base (at least, Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of The Penguin is).
Despite that lack of spark, the broadcast networks have shown a lot of patience with its new fall slate — handing out full first seasons, asking for more scripts and in general showing interest in being able to eventually put at least 13 episodes on Netflix or Amazon. In fact, after about two months of roll-outs, there have only been three official casualties: ABC was first to cancel a new show this season, bidding goodbye to the universally panned “Manhattan Love Story,” a move followed soon after by NBC announcing that it would not be extending the orders for comedies “A to Z” and “Bad Judge” beyond the initial 13 episodes.
Two of those three shows have one thing in common, but not just with each other; the whole breadth of the new shows this season have been consumed by an abuse of a screenwriting technique that’s been around for decades. What’s so bad about voice-over? Simple. When used badly, it cripples storytelling.
It Treats The Audience Like Idiots (Who Like Puns)
Intelligent television at least pretends that its viewership deserves a little credit for understanding basic facts. Which is why I lost all respect for the ABC drama “Forever” when immortal medical examiner (go with it) Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is seen walking into the New York City coroner’s office while telling “I work as a medical examiner for the New York City coroner’s office.” There is a sign that says the name of the office he is walking into, right on the screen. Of all the complicated elements of the show’s premise, that’s the one they wanted to make sure audiences understood?
Meanwhile, ABC’s “Selfie,” currently barely surviving, chooses to abuse voice-over in the name of proving that its writers have heard of this thing we call social media, while also flinging around bad puns. Bad voice-over puns have long-established roots, and the cutesy narration of “Selfie” is so dead-on “Sex and the City” that you almost expect to see Karen Gillen lounging on her bed writing in designer underwear. But those moments just drag down plenty of great jokes in each episode — great jokes that do not come from above. Instead, they’re all rooted in the on-screen, not auditory, charms of Gillen and John Cho.
It Weighs Down the Scene
What’s more fun: Watching two actors interact, or watching one actor think about something while a disembodied voice spells out what’s happening? Yeah, the first one. But the latter was the baseline premise of “Manhattan Love Story,” which featured the inner thoughts of two young hot New Yorkers as they fumbled their way through a relationship. Turns out their inner thoughts proved way too tiresome, and kept them from actually forming any connection.
ABC’s “Black-ish” has its fans and its detractors — given the show’s bold attempt to not only take on race relations in modern-day America, but also find some humor in the subject, that’s to be expected. But the pilot gave viewers very little time to engage with star Anthony Anderson and his complicated family; there was almost literally a slideshow with voice-over, used to quickly explain the premise.
If you’re noticing a pattern: Yeah, ABC is definitely the worst offender this year when it comes to voice-over abuse. But Fox’s “Red Band Society” went to the trouble of creating an entire character to justify its voice-over: Coma Kid Charlie, played by Griffin Gluck, has an intriguing backstory, but that doesn’t stop him from being a means by which terrible puns might be inflicted upon an innocent viewing public. He’s the definition of separated from the narrative, and by leaning on him as narrator the medical dramedy keeps getting distracted from the antics of its conscious characters.
It Oversells the Gimmick
NBC’s “A to Z” stood out as a show that has a strong cast and intriguing potential, even if the concept of the “rom-com sitcom” is feeling played out. “A to Z” tried to be different with the help of Katey Sagal, who served as an unseen narrator dissecting and cataloging the emerging romance between Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti). It’s never a bad thing to hear Sagal’s voice, but what could have been a charming relationship comedy between two likeable young leads became formulaic and un-engaging. (It’s a formula they’re creating on the fly, but that doesn’t make feel any less artificial.)
“A to Z” aimed to reapproach the idea of people falling in love on TV (comedy edition), but it’s not the format that makes or breaks a sitcom like this; it’s the characters and their interactions. Gimmick only gets you so far — and because Feldman and Milioti didn’t get a chance to prove this, the show quickly lost its audience.
But It Doesn’t Have to Suck
“Jane the Virgin,” which is full of charm, does also hop on the voice-over train. But in its case, using voice-over actually plays into the genre it’s not-technically-parodying (telenovela narration strings together the action). There’s also voice-over in “The Affair,” but it works because the voice-over isn’t just there to be cute. It’s minimal, and its existence is a key part of the story’s framework, set up as Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) recounting past events with a limited relationship to the truth. And in both cases, a light touch proves key to being additive as opposed to distracting.
Voice-over offers shortcuts for relaying information and establishing character — or at least character traits. But when slapped around carelessly, it not only detracts from these shows, but from other shows that might make good use of it. A storytelling device is like a tool — it’s all about the hands that wield it.