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Commentaries on this Media!

The Omniscient Narrator

by Jeremy Butler

Speech in narrative television most commonly takes the form of dialogue among characters. Dialogue does not typically address viewers. It is as if they were eavesdropping on a conversation. Characters speak to each other as if we were not listening. In some comic situations, however, a character will break this convention of the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the camera. It was done as early as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–58) and continues into twenty-first-century television with Malcolm in the Middle (2000–06) and The Bernie Mac Show (2001–06). These direct addresses of the viewer are from an intriguing, narratively ambiguous space. When Malcolm talks to us, he clearly does so from within the diegetic space—as a character, not the actor, Frankie Muniz. But when George Burns and Bernie Mac speak to us, it is as the actors, Burns and Mac, but they’re still embedded in the fiction, in the diegetic space. Although Burns was actually married to Gracie Allen, he wasn’t really friends with the characters in the show. And Mac was a comic in real life and on the show, but he wasn’t actually married to Kellita Smith, the actress who played his wife. When Burns and Mac look us in the “eye” and talk to us, they are doing so both as actors and as characters. The programs deliberately blur the distinction for humorous effect. Other programs do not put the character on screen when he or she addresses us. Through narration or voiceover, in which a character’s or omniscient narrator’s voice is heard over an image, a character can speak directly to the viewer. For example, the adult Kevin Arnold talks to the viewer about his younger self in The Wonder Years (1988–93) and an unidentified narrator (Ron Howard) comments on the hapless Bluth family in Arrested Development (2003–06).2 (Note the difference between “narration,” which refers to a voice speaking over an image, and “narrative,” which we use more generally to refer to some sort of story or fiction.) 

Voiceover Narration in "Arrested Development"

An omniscient narrator in "Arrested Development".

from Arrested Development (2005)
Creator: Fox
Distributor: Fox
Posted by Jeremy Butler