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On Monday night, DeeAnn and I watched the Veronica Mars movie at home (which was awesome, and I can't wait for the day when all TV shows and movies are distributed on-demand, but that's another blog post). I was happy that the movie continued the TV series' judicious use of in-character voiceover narration, especially during that scene in the car with Logan. You know the one. We could have guessed what Veronica was thinking at that moment, but the words added important depth. And the show's practice of juxtaposing the mostly-delivered-straight VO with its trademark snarky dialogue is also great, but again, that's another blog post.
I tweeted about this, which started Twitter and Facebook threads, and that got me to thinking about the different kinds of voiceover a show might have. It could be an announcer, who is explicitly addressing the audience outside the context of the story; a narrator, who may or may not be one of the characters but is clearly within the world of the story; or a character like Veronica Mars, offering commentary in real time or not, possibly unreliable, and ideally providing some counterpoint to what we can already see and hear taking place. (There can, of course, be many variations on and hybrids of the three types, but I'd argue those are the basics.)
There's an old saw in Hollywood about voiceovers being the laziest possible way for a screenwriter to do exposition. (Not true, by the way: it's actually title cards.) People always point to the Robert McKee scene from Adaptation, or Harrison Ford's uninspired VO performance in the original theatrical version of Blade Runner. I suspect the sentiment continues to propagate because "film" has always aspired to be more than television—another cliché I hear a lot is TV denigrated as "radio with pictures."
There's nothing wrong with making words and images work together. You just have to know why and how you're using each element. Comic book and graphic novel creators know this, and I am continually dazzled by the things that people are doing in those formats, from Chris Ware's insanely detailed designs to Jim Williams' gorgeous Batwoman layouts. Seriously, man, if you're not reading comics these days, you are missing out on some great art.
But I digress. We were talking about voiceovers.
In October of 2005, Entertainment Weekly ran a piece titled "What's with all the TV voiceovers?," where Gary Susman pointed out seven new shows debuting that fall—including How I Met Your Mother—which "use voiceover narration or feature a character who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience." I'm not sure 7 out of 354 constitutes "a plague," but whatever. He remarked that "the rise in voiceovers has coincided with the rise of single-camera sitcoms...filmed and edited in such a way that there was no room for a laugh track" and concluded that "if self-consciously clever voiceover narration was the price I had to pay to get rid of laugh tracks, maybe it was worth it." (All I'll say to that is: How I Met Your Mother. Laugh track. Nine seasons and a spin-off.)
In June of 2010, the more upbeat Chicago Tribune article "Voice-overs rule TV" proclaimed that "we're in a Golden Age of Voice-Overs...because they're being used with more artistry, eloquence and flair than ever before, to set moods and tones, to deepen and sharpen characterizations, to mystify and beguile as well as to explain and elucidate. The voice-over is now a distinctive—even crucial—feature in many popular series." Writer Julia Keller calls out In Plain Sight, Burn Notice, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Dexter for using "voice-over as a dazzling creative device, fit for far more than mere exposition."
Speaking of Burn Notice, did you know there's a web site which has organized all of Michael Westen's spycraft voiceovers by topic? It's pretty groovy.
Finally, there's the recent news that starting with this year's Primetime Emmy Awards, the Television Academy has split the "Outstanding Voice-Over Performance" category into two different awards: "Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance" and "Outstanding Narrator" (my emphasis). I suspect this actually happened as a catty attempt to keep that particular statuette from going to animated series nearly 80% of the time, but let's hope it also has the civilizing influence of recognizing different artistic applications of the same storytelling tool.