Let me tell you a story about a horse while I diffuse this missile...
May 6, 2013 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find TV shows (or films) that contain a particular trope that I noticed while watching some old 1980's shows lately. Namely shows where the main character provides a sort of running narration throughout.

I was watching the pilot episode of Macgyver on Netflix yesterday and noticed that during the beginning of the episode, the main character (Macgyver) was narrating a story about an encounter with a Palomino horse in voiceover while on screen he was diffusing a missile in central Asia (YT link of what I'm referring to). It made me realize -or recall- that this was a pretty commonly used trope in 1970's and 1980's TV, where the main character would narrate or provide voice over commentary while we watched whatever they were doing on screen. I know Quantum Leap did this a lot and if I recall correctly, I think Magnum P.I. did it too.

What I'm looking for are other examples of TV shows that did this (or films). Are there any current or more recent TV shows that do this? I haven't noticed any recent examples of it myself so I'm curious as to why it's a trope that has been largely abandoned (if it has). Do current TV viewers see it as breaking the fourth wall?
posted by katyggls to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Shawshank Redemption
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:46 AM on May 6, 2013

Response by poster: PuppetMcSockerson: "Shawshank Redemption"

I guess I wouldn't count this one because the narration in Shawshank is mainly Morgan Freeman's character Red talking about or narrating the events that happened to another character, Andy Dufresne. In the shows I'm talking about, the main character is narrating events that happened to themselves, or providing commentary on their own character.
posted by katyggls at 5:54 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Veronica Mars? Perhaps Clarissa Explains it All? (I can't 100% remember if CEIA did this)

also you're defusing the missle, not diffusing it...
posted by arnicae at 6:07 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sunset Blvd and Double Indemnity spring to mind.
posted by afx237vi at 6:10 AM on May 6, 2013

"Burn Notice". The voiceovers generally start "When you're a spy..."
posted by rmd1023 at 6:12 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Thin Red Line used a lot of voiceovers. Disconcertingly, the voiceovers were typically not the voice of the character depicted onscreen, and had nothing to do with the action depicted onscreen.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:18 AM on May 6, 2013

Police Squad did / satirized this.
posted by The Deej at 6:25 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pretty sure Terminator- The Sarah Conner Chronicles started shows this way. Didn't The Rockford Files do this also to some degree?
posted by dukes909 at 6:34 AM on May 6, 2013

When Police Squad did it, it was a parody of Dragnet. In both cases, it was primarily transitional information. "We decided to talk to Dr. Blahblah of the forensics lab." "We found the suspect in a Hollywood Hills flophouse."
posted by Sunburnt at 6:37 AM on May 6, 2013

Desperate Housewives typically started & ended the show with a voice over from the dead character the show started with. (I hate that I know this).
posted by dukes909 at 6:37 AM on May 6, 2013

The Mindy Project does some of this, although I think it's parodying Sex and the City, rather than the shows you mention. Unlike SATC, she is mostly narrating herself
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 6:37 AM on May 6, 2013

The Waltons would usually start with the adult John-Boy reminiscing about his life, which would form the basis for each episode.
posted by essexjan at 6:45 AM on May 6, 2013

Along the lines of The Waltons, mentioned above, The Wonder Years was the same way. Kevin Arnold in voiceover was an adult (voiced by Daniel Stern, best known as the second burglar from Home Alone), while he was still a child in the show. I didn't watch it, but it's possible the Chris Rock autobiographical show Everybody Hates Chris was the same.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:50 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stand by Me
posted by TedW at 6:54 AM on May 6, 2013

Oh, and "How I Met Your Mother" does this - it's another "flashback from the future" voiceover.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:05 AM on May 6, 2013

I'm pretty sure Arrow (on the WB) does this.
posted by bleep at 7:10 AM on May 6, 2013

The Dukes of Hazzard referred to the narrator (voiced by Waylon Jennings) as "the Balladeer".
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:25 AM on May 6, 2013

The first episode of Glee did this. I seem to remember it felt like a nod to 'Election', itself a '99 film.

I feel like in more recent TV shows it's become somewhat more common for characters to do this by addressing the camera directly - Malcolm in the Middle through to Modern Family's mockumentary style.
posted by lwb at 7:35 AM on May 6, 2013

I think Go On does it (or something recent with Matthew Perry) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_On_(TV_series)
posted by Burgatron at 8:40 AM on May 6, 2013

The Thin Red Line used a lot of voiceovers. Disconcertingly, the voiceovers were typically not the voice of the character depicted onscreen, and had nothing to do with the action depicted onscreen.

Yes, I was coming on also to say this technique is used in interesting ways by Terence Malick. Unlike, probably, a realist tv show, I remember Malick tending to use voice over narration as an ironic or unsettling device to depict a split between layers of story -- not to seamlessly create the impression of a singular explanation of the visual level, as you might find in a Macgyer episode. So Malick might have the senseless murder by the Martin Sheen character juxtaposed with Sissy Spacek's bland, typical-teen diary entry in Badlands;, or play on the jarring effect of a child narrating her limited perspective on the complex adult love triangle in Days of Heaven.
posted by third rail at 8:45 AM on May 6, 2013

Depending on the version, Blade Runner kind of infamously did this.
posted by edgeways at 10:26 AM on May 6, 2013

Goodfellas has voiceovers from both Henry and Karen Hill. (Interesting point, if you haven't caught it already: make note of when Karen's last VO is. I think it's significant.)

I'm pretty sure Arrow (on the WB) does this.

There's a brief VO from Oliver Queen at the start—the same every episode, just to set up the premise—but outside of that the show doesn't use VO narration.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:17 PM on May 6, 2013

Dexter features voice over by the lead character, probably because the character is a psychopath and the audience would struggle to understand his motivations (or lack of) without his commentary.
posted by Ness at 2:37 AM on May 7, 2013

How could we forget Apocalypse Now? It has some of the best narration ever.
posted by The Deej at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2013

Eastbound & Down does this.
posted by TedW at 9:56 PM on May 12, 2013

« Older How do we deal with adults acting like teenagers?   |   Current technology trends for teens? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.