Narration is out of control in unscripted programming. What was once a key part of some non-fiction television is now used by reality show producers and editors as a crutch, filling time or substituting for a lack of footage.
Having narrators fill gaps or provide viewers with missing information sometimes makes sense, especially on docs where there’s a lot of information that needs to be condensed, or where the footage doesn’t provide that information itself, like on the brilliant nature series Planet Earth. But far too many unscripted shows now include an unseen narrator, a character no viewer cares about but who’s always there, in a desperate attempt to connect disparate moments. Mostly, it’s annoying.
The new Fox version of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, for example, uses a generic narrator instead of confessional-style narration by Ramsay (as the UK version does). The narrator is left to explain the big-time gaps left by extreme edits, the apparent result of trying to include a days’ worth of material in a single episode. Ramsay’s other Fox series, Hell’s Kitchen, also uses an insufferable narrator who occasionally slips in a wry joke, but mostly just states the obvious.
If Survivor can pull off hour-long episodes with well-developed story arcs but no narration, then so can any other reality show. Of course, host Jeff Probst occasionally explains what’s happening with the game, and that’s fine, because competition series often need explanation for their game elements.
Other competition shows sometimes rely on annoying narration, and that usually happens when it’s not organic to the moment, existing to slip in product placement or make sense of something that’s unclear. Those lines are increasingly written later by story producers and dubbed in by the talent long after production, challenging the definition of ‘unscripted’ or ‘reality-based’ programming. The new dialog is placed over footage that suggests the lines were spoken during actual filming, even though the audio sounds like it was captured on a kids’ tape recorder and transmitted from the International Space Station.
Some series use their own talent as narrators, but with comically disastrous results. Bravo’s often-terrific docudrama shows leave it to their stars to narrate their lives, and the results are awkward and uncomfortable. While Kathy Griffin can provide hysterical context to her life, the network’s other stars aren’t as talented.
When Work Out‘s Jackie Warner narrates, her voice changes, adopting stilted modulation and a tone that suggests she’s trying hard to be natural. She sounds nothing like she does in raw footage or during interview segments. Worse, her lines are nearly always unnecessary and are clearly scripted, and even the tone of her voice suggests she’d rather be lifting weights than sitting in a studio.
That said, her narration and similar lines on other shows are nowhere near as extraneous as nearly every other sentence on MTV’s genre-defining reality shows. Series like The Real World have fallen into a pattern where they use cast members’ interviews to serve as narration, but the results are all but completely redundant. Viewers will be shown the cast walking into frame to meet, say, Real World/Road Rules Challenge host TJ Lavin, who’s standing in front of a lake, then cut to a cast member who will say something like, ‘We saw host TJ Lavin standing in front of a big lake.’ Thanks for the insight.
Perhaps producers of these shows are convinced that their audience members have microcosmically small attention spans, or are so dumb they can’t figure out that TJ stands before a lake. But still, such moments are completely unnecessary. If cutaways to interviews must be used, that kind of narration should provide us with something extra, like a cast member saying, ‘I was so excited to see a big lake, because I love big lakes.’ Anything less insults viewers’ intelligence in a genre that’s already criticized for being dumb, but that really is not.
Ultimately, narration pulls us out of unscripted shows’ reality. If the footage of what really happened doesn’t give producers and editors enough to craft an engaging narrative, then maybe there really isn’t a show there.