Dialogue in TV: Deal-Maker, Deal-Breaker

I would like to start my month-long discussion (or perhaps obsessed fan-girl gushing would be the better term) about tv shows with a focus on dialogue.  Obviously, dialogue is important in any story-telling medium.  Obviously.  That goes without saying (even though I just said it).  But I would make the argument (and perhaps I’m wrong, please let me know) that dialogue is at least marginally MORE important in television shows than it is in movies or in novels.  Dialogue in tv is the deal-maker or the deal-breaker.

Playwright and Screenwriter David Mamet was once quoted as saying: “A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue,” (despite the fact that his ability to write sharp dialogue has led to the phrase ‘Mamet-speak’).  Dialogue in films is obviously still important as far as specific plots and characters are concerned, however, I would agree with Mamet’s general sentiment.  Many very good films rely so heavily on the visual: character movement, sweeping landscapes, brilliantly shot action sequences or surrealist techniques, etc, that in certain cases dialogue becomes merely a minor detail.  One such film is Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), a German film by Wim Wenders.  This film is almost entirely visual and internal most of the spoken lines are voice-overs that indicate a person’s thoughts. There is little-to-no dialogue until the last half-hour of the film.

Similarly, while many novels rely heavily on dialogue, some novels can employ visual description and an internal focus so effectively that dialogue becomes almost superfluous.  That is not to say, of course, that there are many novels that don’t use any dialogue (though I can think of one: Western by Christine Montalbetti).  Obviously, novels still NEED dialogue, but some novels have a more internal focus that make the external dialogue between characters somewhat less important.  For instance, Sunshine by Robin McKinley focuses fare more on the first-person narrator’s internal monologue, going sometimes 8-12 pages between snippets of any dialogue at all.  It’s the narrator’s voice that makes that novel as amazing as it is.

The point of all of this is to say that unlike these other two media, television lives and dies by its dialogue.  Yes, character development and plot are highly important, but the dialogue carries a tv show more completely than it does in just about any other medium.  I cannot begin to list the number of tv shows I’ve heard praised based almost entirely on the intelligent, wit, humanity, and rapidity of the dialogue.

Case in point: Gilmore GirlsGilmore Girls took some very common teenage-focused dramedy tropes focused around the main character Rory Gilmore (all the usual first love drama, family conflicts, school bullies, etc), added some unique details the unconventional single mother, the quirky small town and gave us an entertaining tv show.  The show gave in to quite a few cliché plot elements that often put me off for awhile, especially later in the series.  But throughout, the most appealing element remained the same and kept me coming back: the sharp, pop-culture-filled, rapid-fire dialogue.  This show was built around the pitch-perfect dialogue, and execution thereof, between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and the crazy people in their lives.  It was difficult to pick a representative scene, but this one’s good:

This heavy reliance on dialogue is, unsurprisingly, usually most obvious in comedies.  Another great example is Psych, which is a comedy and crime show in one, about Shawn Spencer who uses his Holmesian abilities to pretend to be a psychic working for the police.  Like Gilmore Girls, much of the dialogue is filled with pop culture references (especially 80’s references) and is spoken very quickly.  The dialogue between Sean and his partner Gus, as well as the other characters including several police officers and Sean’s ex-cop father, is by the far the highlight of the show (with the random slapstick moments coming in a close second).

Some other shows that rely heavily on good dialogue are: X-Files (my mother used to complain that ALL they did was talk), Law & Order (seriously!), and In Plain Sight (the word battles between the two main characters is FANTASTIC), just to name a few.

Sharp, witty, (and often quick) dialogue can make or break a show.  It’s not the only important thing, obviously, but it’s definitely near the top of the list probably tied for first with the characters themselves.  And, of course, the characters and the way those characters are portrayed through dialogue are so intertwined that I don’t think you could really have good, well-developed, likable characters without the right dialogue.  You could say that the opposite is true too, but I think in the case of tv, the dialogue often MAKES the character — especially in the beginning of a show as both the actor and the viewers are getting to know a new character.  Stilted, awkward dialogue that makes it difficult for the actor to fill out the character, or for the viewers to understand or like the character, can completely destroy a show — no matter how interesting the plot is, or how cool the character might otherwise become.

(I spent WAY too much time last night digging around on youtube trying to find some decent dialogue clips.  The two videos here don’t do the shows justice, but they’re a start.  I highly recommend simply watching the shows.)

What do you think of the importance of dialogue in tv shows?  Is it far up on your list?  What other elements do you find just as or more important for an entertaining successful tv show?  Any other good examples of strong dialogue in television?

Tune in next Wednesday for a discussion of one of my favorite shows of all time: Star Trek.

6 thoughts on “Dialogue in TV: Deal-Maker, Deal-Breaker

  1. I’m a huge Psych fan and I think the dialogue is brilliant between Shawn and Gus. Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m a child of the 80s much like James Roday. His Dual Spires episode last year paying homage to Twin Peaks was my absolute favorite of all time. The thought and consideration that went into that screenplay was fabOoolous! In case you missed it, here’s a page from my blog where I go on about Psych. 😉


    I think a very important aspect of any successful TV show is the chemstiry between the actors. Bones is a prime example. Not only to Booth and Bones have the obvious onscreen chemistry, but so does every one else. The viewers not only love the two stars, but Cam, Angela, Hodgens, Sweets, but also the interns. I cried when Nigel Murray dies this year and he was only on every 3-4 episodes. I feel like I’m watching real friends…not just television characters and it pulls me in.

    • Yeah, the Duel Spires episode was BRILLIANT!

      And I completely agree, chemistry between the actors – the main cast especially, but all of them – is DEFINITELY important. And Bones is a good example.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I definitely rank dialogue pretty high on my necessities of good TV. I think it’s the most important way to get to know a character, like you said…obviously. I agree with Tiffany that chemistry between actors is crucial, but GREAT writing of dialogue might be able to mask that factor if it was slightly lacking.

    • Definitely! And sometimes even if the actors don’t have the best chemistry right off the bat, really good dialogue CREATES good character interaction and the actors develop the right chemistry for the roles. And seriously, I just LOVE really snappy dialogue.

  3. I totally agree with you. I’ve always thought that dialogue was key for television shows… Good characters are important, but I think that more times than not, characters are interesting *because* of their dialogue, and how they interact with each other. I’d like to make an example of The O.C. Typical teen drama. Add in a flurry of nerd culture dialogue from Seth, the (very) occasional quip from normally-quiet Ryan, and the characters come to life on the screen.

    Granted, it’s not a perfect example, but it’s not even six in the morning. Good examples don’t start showing up until nine. ^_^

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