Recently Cat borrowed Dead Like Me, an engaging little show about people who catch-and-release the souls of the recently deceased. They free the soul from the body, allowing it to pass into the afterlife.
The characters are all modestly characteristic, and have a great little ensemble atmosphere going. The stories are simple, but again, interesting. The premise of death as a way of exploring life is also fairly interesting.
Despite I found myself watching it for about 20 minutes, then feeling vaguely annoyed and wandering off to do something else, and it took me quite a while to identify why. I liked the characters. The stories were okay. The setting and premise weren’t shit. And then I realized that it was the voice-over that was killing the show for me.
All this time, I’ve hated voice-overs? I really think I’d have noticed it. And in fact, just a brief re-wind on this blog finds counter-evidence, where I praise the voice-over from The Spirit as creating atmosphere, though falling short of its ideal. And then I think about other movies and TV shows where the voice-over has really brought something key to the movie.
Imagine watching American Psycho without the voice-over cues. It might make sense, but Bateman would lose his peculiarly weird pathos. And a movie like Fight Club virtually contains the plot in the voice-over; take that away and the real dramatic interest is at best implied. Perhaps the most compelling voice-overs for me personally were Hawkeye’s letters to his father in M*A*S*H – they provided a great insight into the character, a more direct insight than his actions alone.
Recalling these, and other, examples, I realized that structurally, the voice-over in Dead Like Me was superfluous – it didn’t really add value. At best it was a re-hash of what had clearly been shown on the screen; it wasn’t even a framing device for that action the way Hawkeye’s was.
But was the irritation simply due to its superfluity? I applied some attention to the actual content, and began to realize where I’d heard that kind of language before: Scrubs. The voice-over sought to transcend its material: to expand it from a sequence of incidents into a grand statement about the fundamentals of human life.
In other words, it’s purpose is meta-textual: to force the transformation of the show from a diversion into a philosophical statement. And frankly, it and Scrubs just do not have the philosophical or creative chops to make that leap into real profound exploration of human issues.
They are basically too shallow, too glib, and too short-sighted. Now, these are not qualities I object to. Despite my best efforts at intellectual snobbery, I laugh at Friends and Two and a Half Men – but these shows aren’t pretending to be more than they are. And I think Scrubs at least, definitely was. It was dressing itself up, and that was just not tolerable.