Five reasons we should listen more closely to TV dialogue

If we’re living in a golden age of television, we should pay attention to the dialogue that drives shows like Veep. Foxtel Movies

People often ask me why I study television dialogue. Behind such a question sometimes lie deep-seated assumptions about the low value of popular culture.

Such underlying assumptions can extend not just to the cultural product itself, but also to its systematic (academic) study. In other words, if pop culture is worthless, then surely its study is also worthless.

Nevertheless, television scholars have been analysing television for more than 30 years. But linguists have only recently started to examine the language of TV series, in other words TV dialogue. We all know a TV catchphrase or two, but the influence of TV series on our culture is both more subtle and more widespread than this.

Homer Simpson’s cult catchphrase.

We need to pay attention to TV series and the dialogue they contain. Here are five reasons why:

1) It’s everywhere

Netflix tweet quoting House of Cards.

TV dialogue used to be something that we only encountered when watching our favourite series live on television. The rise of new technologies means there’s more opportunity for us than ever to consume TV dialogue. We can now engage with it whenever and wherever we want.

A catchphrase from the Big Bang Theory - on a t-shirt. Monika Bednarek

New technologies also expose us to TV dialogue through other ways. Friends might live-tweet a dialogue snippet from a shared favourite show. Fan websites might ask us to nominate our most beloved dialogue exchange. Networks might advertise their latest show through TV quotes.

TV dialogue is even wearable, and we can use our bodies to put it on display.

2) It’s incredibly popular around the globe

TV series are hugely popular cultural products. They attract billions of viewers around the globe. TV series from the US and Britain are especially successful – from Downton Abbey to Doctor Who, from Game of Thrones to Modern Family.

This means that we all encounter a lot of American and British English without even leaving Australia. And the same goes for audiences who speak English as a second or foreign language. TV dialogue is actually used to learn and teach English around the world.

I know for sure this was the case for me. Growing up in Germany, I complemented my English lessons by watching endless re-runs of American TV series. I still remember learning expressions like fall (for autumn), take a raincheck, and how to pronounce the word psychology from watching TV.

TV dialogue clearly crosses national borders. Not just when American, British or Australian TV series make it overseas.

MacLeod’s Daughters – dubbed into German.

European TV series like The Killing, The Bridge or The Returned have been huge hits in English-speaking nations, too.

“You’re actually watching something with subtitles?”

This is fertile ground for research into languages and cultures: What gets taken up in the transference of the dialogue from one culture to another, through dubbing and subtitling? And how is Australian TV dialogue different from American TV dialogue? Or French from British?

3) It’s high-quality writing

Reading about TV series, I keep encountering the expression “golden age of television”. This usually refers to the recent emergence of high-quality TV series funded by networks like HBO, AMC, Showtime, and the online distributor Netflix.

TV dialogue now definitely needs to be taken seriously in terms of its artistic sophistication. Programmes like Breaking Bad, The Wire or Australia’s Offspring receive critical acclaim and are nominated for awards.

Australians tuned into the Logies last night, with its category of outstanding drama series won by Redfern Now. In a couple of weeks we’ll know who was successful at the British Academy Television Awards. Then there are also the Emmys coming up in August and the Golden Globes which took place back in January.

Allan Ball, the creator of True Blood and Six Feet Under, has suggested that “television right now is far more welcoming to interesting, complicated, nuanced storytelling for adults than movies are”.

Alan Ball at the Opera House.

In such quality series, TV audiences encounter sophisticated characters with depth. We are also asked to follow sometimes difficult dialogue and get into complex story arcs that span many episodes or even seasons. This is one of the reasons why literary and cultural scholars also study TV series. For example, in 2010 researchers at The University of Sydney organised a symposium on Mad Men. Last year I participated in a symposium on TV crime drama at Oxford Brookes University.

Writing Mad Men.

But it’s not just in academia that TV writing has become more valued. Interviews with TV writers and creators are regularly published in the media. Writers/creators like Alan Ball and Joss Whedon (of cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer) speak to sold-out audiences at the Sydney Opera House.

Joss Whedon at the Sydney Opera House.

On 1 May, Vince Gilligan (who created Breaking Bad) will speak at Sydney Town Hall. The Sydney Writer’s Festival event was sold out within days. At the beginning of the 21st century, we clearly value high-quality TV dialogue.

4) It engages us on a social and psychological level

Watching TV series has long been more than an isolated and isolating experience. TV dialogue engages us on a social level. We watch TV series together or talk to each other about them, at home, among friends and colleagues, and with strangers.

We also build virtual communities around a TV series, for example on fan websites, facebook or Twitter. As crossword maker and Sydney Morning Herald columnist David Astle put it: “TV transcends the TV room”.

Virtual sociality from HBO.

TV dialogue also engages us on a psychological level. The TV characters that we encounter may become objects of hate, admiration or identification. We clearly engage with them emotionally. Researchers speak of the ‘para-social’ relationships we form with such characters.

TV dialogue clearly has an important role to play in building these characters. In one of my studies I wanted to know what makes The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon so “special”. The study showed how specific cues in the dialogue make him a nerd-par-excellence, like his inappropriate use of formal language and unintentional impoliteness.

The best of the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon.

5) It tells us important stories about our world

TV dialogue tells us and teaches us a lot about the world we live in. Philosopher Mark Rowlands has written a book about TV series with the tongue-in-cheek title Everything I Know I Learned from TV.

To put it strongly, TV tells us who we are and how we live. For example, medical shows like House and Nurse Jackie address ethical issues and the work-life balance. Crime series are often propelled by current social issues or actual cases. Political dramas like West Wing and House of Cards provide searing political commentary. Programmes like Deadwood tackle human nature and morality.

Only recently, Julia Gillard compared Game of Thrones to her time as Prime Minister. In her words, “after all, what girl has not yearned for a few dragons when in a tight spot?”

For me, writing is at the centre of telling these stories about our world. And this is just one of five reasons why I believe we need to pay close attention to TV dialogue.

If you are an academic or researcher working on television and would like to write for The Conversation please contact the Arts + Culture editor.

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