Noise in the signal

Last night on The Mentalist, the police were interviewing a suspect and the suspect was complaining.

He says (something like),

“When you weigh what I do, women don’t even notice you. I’m just not a good looking guy.”

One of the detectives (Tim Kang) says (something like),

“That’s not true. If you went on a diet that was low on fat and rich on protein, you’d look completely different.”

And he says it earnestly. Obviously, the detective a) had thought about this sort of thing a lot, and b) felt he had to share.

The chief detective (Robin Tunney) smiles a little smile. She is charmed.

And we’re charmed too. So far, this has been a grueling interrogation, the police humorless and unrelenting, the suspect openly scornful of their authority. For the detective to hold forth in this way goes against the grain of the event, the script that informs every interrogation, and the role the detective has played in this interview so far.

A couple of days ago, I was commenting on the dialog in a recent episode of Life On Mars. A detective (Michael Imperioli) has offered what he thinks is an analogy, and conversation then turns on what an analogy is. I don’t remember conversations of this kind happening on The Rockford Files. In fact, I think we watched the Rockford Files with the implicit promise that we were never going to hear the word “analogy” or watch characters break from character.

Dialog in the Rockford Files had a job to do: move the plot along. If necessary, it could provide emergency service. If things got muddy, if the plot was unclear, dialog would step in and offer exposition. As in, “So you’re saying the butler did it!” Remarks were never “stray,” dialog didn’t wander. Philosophical speculation and idle advice was not forthcoming.

The police procedural has been with us for the beginning of recorded history. (The cave paintings in the south of France? Obviously an equine chase scene.) And now it’s on the rise. CBS owes its current success to the fact that it is all about the procedural.

But notice that this sort of dialog signals, or may signal, that something is trying to tunnel out of the procedural. In this the most formulaic of the TV shows, there are stray remarks and wandering dialog everywhere. And we are charmed.

Of course, this might be a kind of cultural gilding. Everyone party the police procedural is better than the form. The producer, the writers, the actors, all have skills and sophistication the Rockford team could not dream of. So, inevitably, we are going to see a high caliber of work “leaking” out of the prime time TV. How could it not?

Or maybe interesting dialog is something like the crouton in a Caesar salad, there merely to add variety, texture, novelty. It’s not really essential, but it adds something to the pleasure of the programming.

But there’s another possibility: that even a form as well defined as the police procedure is evolving out of its traditional tough talk form.

3 thoughts on “Noise in the signal”

  1. I think Police dramas are going to have to up their game generally, now that The Wire has started to get more coverage. Maybe The Mentalist is the first series to really start trying. I’d love to know if you’ve seen it and what you made of it.

    Also just wanted to thank you again for a great talk at Interesting NY a couple of months back. I found it really inspiring and am now putting my applications in for fellowships and apprenticeships at UK advertising agencies next year.

  2. If you are looking for stray dialogue on a police drama, watch Life on NBC.

    Not to mention, the main character drives a Maserati undercover police car.

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