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TV viewers will be hearing voices

'Emily Owens M.D.' and 'The Mindy Project' are among the many shows that will be using voice-over. Some critics say that's lazy writing.

September 08, 2012|By T.L. Stanley
  • Mamie Gummer as Emily and Michael Rady as Micah in "Emily Owens, M.D."
Mamie Gummer as Emily and Michael Rady as Micah in "Emily Owens, M.D." (Michael Courtney, The CW )

Emily Owens was a big geek in high school, prone to flop sweats during debate club finals and plagued by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

Viewers of the upcoming dramedy "Emily Owens M.D." will learn this and more about the title character when she spills her guts in the voice-over that threads through the CW series, starting with the pilot episode Oct. 16.

The audience will also hear Owens give herself a pep talk on her first day of work in a big-city hospital, run up against an old nemesis and crush on her med school classmate, all through narration from series star Mamie Gummer.

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It's a deliberate storytelling tactic, made famous on shows like "Sex and the City," "Ally McBeal" and "The Wonder Years," but voice-over has perhaps never been so abundant as in the 2012-13 network television season.

Owens will be part of a flood of characters carrying on perpetual conversations with themselves, cracking jokes that only audiences are meant to hear and giving fans sneak peeks into their psyches. Between fall and midseason entries, there are nearly a dozen shows that will feature voice-over, including Anne Heche's dark NBC comedy, "Save Me," Fox's "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate," and ABC's "The Family Tools." The CW, which caters to young adults weaned on "Gossip Girl's" famous voice-over intro, has several shows on tap with main-character narration, most notably the "Sex and the City" prequel, "The Carrie Diaries."

Professional writing coaches often rail against using voice-over, calling it a crutch for poor story construction and advising their students to go the "show, don't tell" route instead. But several producers defend it as providing a good window into the inner workings of characters' brains. Viewers are accustomed to hearing intimate thoughts and confessions from reality shows.

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"It lets the viewer get under her skin and feel her anxieties, her hopes, her dreams," said Jennie Snyder Urman, executive producer for "Emily Owens M.D." "What's in her head is such a part of the story. It's another character."

She didn't make the decision lightly, she said, after having refused to use voice-over when writing the big-screen romantic comedy "Something Borrowed." Studio executives suggested it, but Urman said she could write the story without it. "It felt like a cop-out," she said.

There was a lot of discussion in the writers' room about whether to use narration in Fox's "The Mob Doctor," said executive producer Carla Kettner. They decided to use sparing amounts of voice-over, often in flashbacks, from series star Jordana Spiro, playing a gifted Chicago doctor indebted to the mafia.

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Because the series revolves around family secrets, violent crimes and ethical dilemmas, Spiro's narration will reveal details "too intimate to say in dialogue," Kettner said.

Audiences are already consuming a steady diet of reality shows in which participants stare directly into the camera and, in present tense, talk about how they're feeling and what they're thinking.

It's also a technique used on single-camera comedies and mockumentaries. And in real life, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other social media outlets broadcast plenty of the personal and private.

"It's normal to share our clever thoughts these days," said Claudia Lonow, an executive producer on ABC's upcoming comedy "How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life," which uses voice-over. "No one keeps anything to themselves, so audiences are used to it by now."

Narration also allowed her, for expediency's sake, to compress time and bring the audience up to speed, "moving quickly over part of the story that would've been boring to watch," Lonow said. "And since I only have 21 minutes to tell a story, I'm looking for any useful tool I can find."

Though it's been done successfully on former shows such as "Sex and the City" and "Oz" and current hits "Dexter" and "Suburgatory," celebrated writing teacher Robert McKee said voice-over on TV is often lazy.

"What makes us pay attention are great characters and great stories," said McKee, a former USC professor and author of "Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting," referred to as the screenwriter's bible. "If have those, you don't need to explain. You dramatize, and everybody can't wait until the next week."

If premium cable dramas "The Sopranos" or "Boardwalk Empire" had main characters Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson narrating the story, audiences would never have fallen for those series, he said.

McKee, a fan of FX's "Louie," said the title character, comedian Louis C.K., narrates his series, in effect, with the stand-up bits he does each episode. But that's a high creative bar, he said, and voice-over in most comedies "sucks the energy out."

"Unless you're Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward and can write tremendously witty narration," he said, "it's problematic."


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