House is a new drama from Fox. Hugh Laurie (sporting a new American accent) plays a doctor. His character falls somewhere between Monk and Becker. He’s eccentric. He’s irascible. He’s gifted.
But the interesting thing is the dialog. There is lots of talk that is actually quite hard to follow. We are treated a great rush of medical lingo and diagnostic contemplation. Rarely, do we get an appearance from "Dr. Exposition" (thank you, Mike Myers) to clear things up. In the place of a detailed understanding, we are left with a mere gist and a general understanding: it’s complicated, they’re smart, this is urgent, go figure.
In The Wire (HBO), there are long moments when I can’t understand the dialog, and several moments when I can’t follow the plot. The former is "straight out of Compton" or in this case Baltimore. The latter is so fiendishly complicated that the viewer is obliged to just sit back and hope it all comes out in the wash.
There is a fundamental contract in pop culture between producers and consumers: that the latter shall always understand what actors are saying and where the plot is going.
This contract reflects several things: first, that the American cinema has always been attended by people who have English as a second language, second, that people are often deeply distracted by other things: eating, day dreaming, necking, wondering whether they turned off the stove. Good writing always finds a way of sending back a rescue party for anyone who might have lost their way. Enter the trope of repetition and of course, Dr. Exposition. ("So you’re saying is the butler did it!)
Most of all, the contract of pop culture is driven by the fact that the Hollywood and Burbank are commercially driven. You can’t baffle the consumer and expect to make your numbers. (It is precisely because the American cinema respected or at least enforced this contract that it has world wide reach, while the more sophisticated French cinema so infrequently escapes the art house.)
The pop culture contract has never sat well with writers and directors. They yearned to create stories with nuance and intricacy to satisfy their "art." But someone on the production team then must intervene with a brusque instruction: "keep it simple, stupid." This tells us that there has always been an internal pressure in the industry to break the contract, and how assiduously it was enforced.
Hollywood has been attempting to rework the contract for some time. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman was happy to give us dialog we couldn’t quite hear and plot points we couldn’t quite follow. I worked on this film as a chauffeur. I heard the shouting when Warren Beatty got his glimpse of the first rushes. He was not happy. He didn’t quite say to Altman, "you have broken the fundamental contract of pop culture," but we got the idea.
Of course there has always been a community of film goers who don’t mind plot and dialog indeterminacy. The art house crowd expects this sort of thing. It was proof that they were unmoored, man, that they were brave enough to space walk without a harness, that they take their leave of the culture capsule. Bangin! Plot indeterminacy was proof of citizenship in hipster city. (Even as it was, to be fair, the very condition of certain kinds of artistic illumination.)
Those of us who have done hard time at art house, welcome the developments that House and The Wire represent. We are well prepared and grateful, even when confused.
But what about the poor souls who bought the bargain, the ones who believe that it is Hollywood’s job to keep things simple? These people must be very unhappy indeed. They can always turn the channel, and I don’t doubt that that’s exactly what they do. But now there are enough viewers to sustain shows like House and The Wire, we can be certain that there will be an upward pressure on all the other shows to embrace plot indeterminacy too. The artistic credentials of writers and directors will see to this.
If the plot indeterminacy of House and The Wire is the coming thing, we are watching pop culture cut away one of the conditions that made it converge, hew to the middle, keep its finger on the pulse, and otherwise stay to the mainstream. If pop culture is lifting off, we can expect it to fragment and innovate ever more fiercely. Without the pop culture contact, it is unmoored, and, yes, I do mean Michael.
website for House here