Over the last twenty years, serialized television programs have grown in number and sophistication. Some of these “narratively complex” series (Mittell, 2006), which include The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Lost, and Breaking Bad, have rarely used what Steven Johnson calls “flashing arrows” to “help the audience keep track of what’s going on” across episodes and seasons (Johnson, 2005, p. 73). However, West Wing creator/writer Aaron Sorkin stealthily embraces and subverts this traditional narrative device through his unconventional yet familiar technique.
“Two Cathedrals,” the season two finale and one of the finest hours of prime-time television, typifies this contrast. President Josiah Bartlet attends the funeral for his longtime secretary, publicly announces he has multiple sclerosis, and deliberates over seeking re-election. Because his characters’ conversations can be so rapid, dense, and layered, and because his storylines often traverse several episodes, Sorkin dialogically tries to mitigate viewers’ confusion.
The accompanying video shows the numerous moments from “Two Cathedrals” when characters repeat themselves to their fellow interlocutors because they were not understood the first time. Through a unique application of “flashing arrows,” Sorkin has his characters acknowledge their incomprehension – by uttering, “I’m sorry?” “Hmmm?” “Excuse me?” “What?” – so the audience can hear again an important piece of dialogue.
While we can assume that no one from these scenes is hard-of-hearing, the reasons the characters repeat themselves are purposeful: one, they maintain momentum that suits the fast-paced workplace environment cultivated aurally and visually by Sorkin’s dialogue and by director Thomas Schlamme’s famous “walk-and-talks”; two, the repeated lines serve as natural transitions between scenes; three, Sorkin obviates the need for expository dialogue that often dumbs down television series (e.g., when a character might say, “Explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old …” or “Are you trying to tell me that …”); four, he draws attention more pointedly to what the characters are saying; five, the dialogue foreshadows critical moments ahead.
The West Wing is justly recognized as one of the most well-crafted series in television history. However, this industry-praised (four consecutive Outstanding Drama Series Emmys) and critically acclaimed show that evinced narrative complexity also modified an old-fashioned trope that is often applied to minimize it.
Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you. New York: Riverhead Books.
Mittell, J. (Fall 2006). Narrative complexity in contemporary American television. The velvet light trap, 58, 29-40.