Monday, 12 April 2010

The Wonder of Narration

I've been so short of things to watch on TV that a couple of things have happened. Firstly, I have rejoined Lovefilm, which is exciting. (We have another baby due next month, so I'll be chained to the sofa significantly more than at the moment.) Secondly, I rewatched some old DVDs including the joyous wonder that is Arrested Development. Just looking at pictures of the characters below is making me smile. The characterisation is so clear and crisp. Quite often, non-audience, single-camera shows pull their punches on their characters and nuance things a little too much. They're too, well, real. The characters below, however, are huge monsters who have really strong motivations and we know exactly they will react in any situation. That is so important when putting together a comedy show. And often those starting out think they can have characters who change their minds more often or aren't so extreme. Treatments and outlines include phrases like "Something Peter gets really angry for no reason, but other times he's really calm" or "Sally loves her boyfriend, but sometimes doesn't, and she doesn't really know why". I exaggerate, but take a look at the characters below and you'll see what characters need to be. Buster is dumb and frightened. Gob ludicrously overestimates his own abilities and is incredibly selfish. Tobias is living in a dreamworld. And Michael is a slave to being 'responsible'. Simple clear character points are essential. If you don't have them, you don't have a show.

Arrested Development is one of those problem shows that in some ways highlights the gap between those who have mainstream and non-mainstream sensibilities. The show was a critical hit, won plenty of awards and the esteem of everyone in the media. Media-types and writers forever gush about The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Arrested Development falls into that category. (By the by, Curb does nothing for me, really. It's masterful in it's plotting. Almost a masterclass. But I want a properly honed script. Gimme Seinfeld any day.)

But, as with The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development was never a ratings hit. Middle America just did not take the show to its bosom - and nor did the English (as if that would have made the difference). The show looked expensive and needed more viewers to pay for itself. You can't pay for a TV show with boxed-set sales (yet). And so, the show was cancelled halfway through it's third season. I believe the last four episodes were all dumped on one night. The show itself made references to it's own cancellation in some of the most skillful self-referential comedy I've ever seen. But nobody watched it. Most Americans, it turns out, would rather watch reruns of Friends, than a brand-shining new episode of Arrested Development.

It's hard to pin-point why this is the case. The show contains mostly unlikeable characters, which can alienate mainstream viewers. But then, Michael, George-Michael and Buster are very likeable. And Seinfeld's four main characters are all unlikeable and selfish. The Office has two key unlikeable characters. I'm sure everyone has a theory as to why Arrested Development 'failed' (in the ratings sense). I'd be very interested to hear the views of others on this one.

So why do I mention this? Firstly because it makes me feel good, just thinking about Arrested Development. But secondly, the show contains one thing that most out-and-out comedies do not - Narration. The narrator makes a huge difference to the show, and I view the narrator device with envy. Often, one of the hardest things to do in a sitcom is move the plot along, purely with people talking. In a novel, you can simply say what's happening. In a film like Austin Powers, you can have a character called Basil Exposition - who tells Austin what to do next. In sitcoms, characters have to say things like "I have to go and pick up my son from his football session", but you have to think of a characterful joke to glue to it. That can be very hard.

But Arrested Development has a narrator (and what a wonderful voice that Ron Howard has). He can say things like 'meanwhile' to emphasise that something is taking place at the same time as another scene - which may be significant. The narrator can say 'this would have been okay, but unfortunately...' and give you a heads up on something bad happening. The narrator can remind, mislead and even do jokes of his own. (There are plenty in the show)

The narrator means that 'the plot' is often as funny as the jokes or the characters, which doesn't happen all that often. In Seinfeld, this can happen, but usually the calamity in a sitcom means that the characters do or say funny things. But careful, skillful plot can be genuinely satisfying in its own right, almost apart from the characters. There are two notable British writers who are brilliant at this. The first is David Renwick whose One Foot in the Grave plots were very clever indeed, hiding crucial bits of information and revealing at just the right time to create wonderfully daft situations and moments. The other is Steve Moffat - who wrote some episodes of Coupling that were superbly plotted, as if a West-End play (a good one). There's is much to learn about plotting from these guys. Plot or story should be satisfying and service the characters. But sometimes it can exceed all expectations and be hilarious in its own right.

So here's the point and the warning. When you're plotting an episode of sitcom, one can be very ambitious in the amount of story that can be crammed in. But if you take Arrested Development's lead, you may come unstuck unless you have a narrator, or a clever device to enable you to cut through plot very quickly. Normally, I find I have too much plot and have to cut back. This can be painful if you've got funny dialogue that you've sweated over in order to get it across. And we return to the importance of proper planning. The best jokes often occur from thin air, when you're writing the script itself, but you need that bedrock of a strong outline. At least I do. (Carla Lane doesn't. And she did okay, didn't she?)


  1. I often wonder if the use of a narrator is a device which works best with American sitcoms. And then I wonder why that is the case. It's something to ponder. In the UK it seems a narrator has only ever been used in sketch shows. I suppose Arrested Development had that compressed quality when it came to exposition and narrative that lent itself to having a narrator.

    As for why Arrested Development failed, I liked the sense of density it had, the sense that there was a lot going on. I wonder if certain audiences were turned off by that. Unlike a lot of other sitcoms it wasn't one where you could just pop in and have a handle on where you were straight away. But then I liked that about it. You got a real sense of a sitcom with texture.

  2. I just want to put in my two cents and say that Arrested Development is hands-down my favorite. TV show. ever. In terms of its "failure" to capture the attention of television audiences, I don't want to sound patronising but I think it was almost too intelligent to attract a mass following. Many of the jokes have double and even triple meanings, referring to things that take 15 seconds to "get" and meanwhile you're on to the next scene/joke/plot change. This is exactly what I love about it but it can be a turn-off for many people.

  3. I think there's an important distinction to make here with regards to narration. If you're using it as a fix all to shore up plot, and paper over the cracks, then it will very nearly always fail.

    But, if you structure your show around a well-rounded narrator, and imbibe that narrator with a point of view, character and characteristics, it will feel integral and essential.

    Excellent narration done well, such as Goodfellas, is a joy, but when it is used as a shortcut, or an afterthought to fix your problems, chances are, you'll just be drawing attention to those problems.

  4. Well David Cross's little rant on the DVD outtake about why the show failed was interesting (he wonders why people criticise the writing despite the multiple plaudits instead of wondering about the marketing).
    And I don't think the show was too smart. I dismissed How I Met Your Mother based on how the show looked and felt, but once I revisited the show I quickly feel in love with it's clever little plot twists, character moments and subversion of the Traditional American Sitcom. It's the first Seinfeld clone that doesn't make we want to throw the TV through the window - Friends with A-Levels one might say. It's not as good as Arrested Development ... but few things are (Season 3 of Morel comes close but more as a work of beautiful comedy).
    And Curb went from strength to strength. Season 5's the Ski Lift makes me laugh just thinking about it, The Blacks in Season 6 (Leon!) and the pure unadulterated joy of Season 7's entire arc (which is a Seinfeld fans wet dream) put it firmly in the top draw of American Sitcom IMHO.

  5. Arrested Development was probably too 'new' for audiences to take. For all its brilliance, it's very different in feel and perhaps audiences are uncomfortable watching. For reasons I've never understood, (non-comedy geek) people tend to switch sitcom over without giving anything a chance. Unfortunately.

    Good call with Renwick and Moffat, especially. Moffat's 'Joking Apart' is probably the best written sitcom (in terms of structure, plot and pacing) and what I aspire to in my own personal very amateurishness...

  6. Ah, Arrested Development, one of the finest sitcoms ever produced. Such sublime charcters, brilliant. A producer once told me my latest script was a bit 'Arrested Development', I don't think they could have given me a better compliment!