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Use a foil, for crying out loud! - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Use a foil, for crying out loud! [May. 17th, 2009|12:17 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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Whenever a story has a significant scientific component — whether in a novel or on television — there's a tricky problem: how do you communicate the science to the viewer? The characters are already up to speed, so you can't have them just explain it to one another.

Obviously, science fiction is the genre that suffers most acutely. The writers of early sci-fi novels, in the 40s and 50s, for the most part just weren't very good, so they often didn't even make an attempt to solve the problem. For a brilliant illustration of how jarring it is to the reader when characters discuss with each other what must be obvious to them, see If all stories were written like science fiction stories.

But in the written medium, there is at least the crutch of the narrator. While long passages with no dialog are boring, they are not horribly unrealistic. Television doesn't have this escape route.

Take House, which is probably my favorite currently running show. When House and his team do their thinking in front of the whiteboard, they often converse in medical jargon, and then immediately translate it into English. While this makes the show intelligible to the lay person, it must make it unwatchable for real doctors. That's certainly the effect that shows or movies have on me when characters explain computer jargon in situations where they shouldn't.

The funny part is that the House writers seem to be aware of and rather embarrassed about this shortcoming. I say this because the characters sometimes make a remark about the fact that it is weird for them not to be using jargon :-)

The good news is that audiences seem to be tolerating unrealistic dialog less and less. The other three shows that I watch — all newer than House — have built-in premises to solve the problem. In Bones, all the principals have different specialities, so it is natural that they would explain their technology and reasoning to each other all the time. Burn Notice pretty much says "fuck it," and has the protagonist do voice-overs to explain what's going on.

Lie to Me has a foil in the form of a newly recruited crime-solver who is naturally brilliant at lie-detection but is unaware of the scientific principles behind it. Naturally, the other lie-detectors explain things to her a lot. Eventually this character will no longer be able to act as a foil, because she will have learnt the ropes, but I believe the show creators expect that by then, the audience will also have been educated to a large degree. An educated audience leaves them with a different problem — building suspense. So far I've been able to guess the conclusion in most of the episodes (it is yet Season 1). It remains to be seen if they can pull it off.

I think one of the best solutions is to have a true foil, a character who is completely uninitiated. The textbook example, and one that will perhaps never be surpassed for the completeness of the resulting dramatic effect, is Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson. The brilliance of Doyle's creation is that the relationship between the characters makes it possible for Holmes to explain what he wants, when he wants, and no more.

Of course, foils have been used effectively in modern television, such as in the show Psych which I've occasionally watched (although far from my favorite). At any rate, I think it is wonderful that audiences are rejecting unrealistic dialog, and shows are experimenting with different solutions.

From: ext_192436
2009-06-06 07:44 pm (UTC)


I like Bones and Psych and House too, and I have to say, I never notivced the science-to-English translation on House. Shall go back and observe. On Bones, though, the explanations of all the science gets a little tedious, especially since each member of the team has his/her own work, with its own specialised science. I still love the show though. :)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-08-28 02:42 am (UTC)

Re: TV

i was re-watching house (got desperate due to the lack of new episodes) and soon enough one of those annoying layman translations happened, so i made a clip of it: http://www.hulu.com/watch/56931/house-the-greater-good?c=1167:1182
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