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The Cost of Bad Dialogue

A few weeks back I saw a couple pilots on TV which marked one of the first time in years I was actually motivated to see what happened in a television show (I talked about it here). One of those shows, Siberia, I’m still finding pretty entertaining and well done. The other one – Under the Dome – is getting increasingly frustrating to watch. The trouble is this: while the concept of Under the Dome is cool (and it is), the visuals in the show are also very cool (and they are), and the characters are (mostly) interesting, I am losing more and more patience with listening to the characters talk to each other. The dialogue is, in a word, bad.

I’ve been trying to nail down precisely what it is about the dialogue that is so terrible and cringe-worthy. It isn’t just the acting, either (though the sheriff’s deputy is abysmally wooden), though few of the actors on the show are really good enough to overcome the cheeseball nonsense they’re asked to say. The problem is, ultimately, that everybody seems to have a permanent case of Cliche’s Disease. Basically, if there is an obvious and overdone way to express a thought at any given time, the show will use that specific way. I will also call this the “Dingo Ate My Baby Syndrome”. It takes what could otherwise be a perfectly serviceable, dramatic, and interesting scene and renders it foolish and weirdly dull.

Point in case, the lesbian couple. Their lines have exactly one and only one setting, and that setting is “A Dingo Ate My Baby!” They rush

Would you two just Lo-Jack your kid, already? Sheesh.

Would you two just Lo-Jack your kid, already? Sheesh.

into a room and say “Has anyone seen our daughter!” over an over and over and over to the point where you just want to smack them. They have super-serious conversations about the status of their insulin supplies, which is fine. But then they have the exact same conversation again, in the exact same way, with the exact same emotional investment. You can almost see the actors getting tired of it.

It’s like everybody in Chester’s Mill has the same five lines to recite over and over again. Now, in the pilot/second episode, the corny dialogue didn’t bother me as much, primarily because (1) it’s the pilot and the concept was strong – I was going to cut them a little slack and (2) they’re supposed to be in a small town somewhere, so the fact that people sounded hokey seemed authentic. Things should have loosened up a bit from there, but no – we are instead trapped in some kind of weird cliché factory. I keep expecting a Family Guy-esque cut-away where the Kool Aid man and the Giant Chicken make some kind of joke at the show’s expense.

Naturally, having sung the show’s praises early on, this whole turn of events is rather embarrassing for me (and, by the way, Katie: you seem to be more and more right). I am still interested in what happens (God help me), but if we keep heading down this trajectory, this show will hit the ‘unwatchable’ level pretty soon. Too bad.

Blah blah blah blah...God, even Boxleitner looks bored.

Blah blah blah blah…God, even Boxleitner looks bored.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Babylon 5 I have long held up as the prime example of how bad dialogue/writing ruins an otherwise good show. B5 had a really cool plot arc, interesting characters, good visuals, an engaging concept, and so on and so forth, but had the worst dialogue known to man. They didn’t have Cliche’s Disease, oh no, that show suffered from Terminal Exposition Syndrome. Pick any given scene from Babylon 5, and there’s probably a 75% chance that the only thing the characters will talk about are things that just happened (exposition) or things that will probably happen someday (exposition). Nobody talks about what is happening now and, indeed, they prefer to discuss the things that are going to/have happened rather than actually do anything. They took what should have been really interesting and made it one of the most arduous things to watch on television.

So, therefore, even though I still find myself watching the damned thing, I’m rescinding my endorsement of Under the Dome. Granted, I still think the concept is cool, but I don’t think it’s really worth putting up with some woman saying ‘the Dome did something to my BABY’. Sheesh.