TV Article

Hauling Sass

Why all the rapid-fire dialogue on TV today? Critic Ken Tucker says it's not just about MTV-era attention spans -- sharply written characters have been trading high-speed wisecracks since the '30s

Alexis Bledel, Lauren Graham, ... | FAMILY PATTERS Hip TV shows like ''Gilmore Girls'' recall the pace of old-time screwball comedies
Image credit: The Gilmore Girls: Andrew MacPherson
FAMILY PATTERS Hip TV shows like ''Gilmore Girls'' recall the pace of old-time screwball comedies

Why all the rapid-fire dialogue on TV today?

In shows like ''The O.C.'' and ''Gilmore Girls,'' the characters talk very fast and there's a lot of dialogue. Do you think this is because this is a smart generation or a result of the talk-fast-or-they'll-change-the-channel syndrome? -- Duncan
Um, both: The shows you cite credit their young demographic with the quick-edit sensibility that MTV, movies, and pop fiction have bred. Those shows do snappy sass talk well, cramming the chatter with low- and high-culture references. They're also not unprecedented -- fast chatter is a hallmark of the great screwball movie comedies of the '30s and '40s (rent ''His Girl Friday'' now). Sometimes, though, I wish TV moved even FASTER: I could easily listen to just three bars of anything any ''American Idol''-ist sings, and I'd know who would get my vote.

What's your favorite TV movie, and do you think any are as good as feature films? -- John
My all-time fave is ''Lonesome Dove,'' the 1989 adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as cussed, itching, horny cowboys on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. As directed by Simon Wincer, the eight-hour, four-part miniseries lifted the game of the late TV vet Robert Urich (as raffish gambler Jake Spoon) and rebirthed the career of onetime kid star Rick Schroder, who played the callow Newt Dobbs. That was every bit as good as any feature film that year, as well as one of the best Westerns in any medium. I think most TV movies, though, are uplifting or downbeat schlock; they either aim to teach you a life lesson like 1977's ''Roots'' (with its record-breaking ratings and profoundly serious subject matter reduced to likable victim-heroes and florid, hiss-boo villains) or exploit common fears -- thus the rise in the '70s and '80s of the ''disease of the week'' or ''women in jeopardy'' telepics. One more lesser-known but great TV movie, though: ''Boycott,'' the thrilling 2001 HBO biopic starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

About the Nielsen ratings: Do they count people who tape or TiVo shows for later viewing, or event shows like ''Survivor,'' which is often watched by groups of people, in bars or dorm rooms? -- Darwin Bell
Well, sort of. And it's a problem that Nielsen is working on: They know that people gather together to watch the climax of a reality show and that viewers tape or TiVo ''Joan of Arcadia'' while on a Friday-night date. Nielsen does measure VCR tapings and plans to start including TiVo taping in 2005.

(Got a TV-related question for Ken Tucker? Post it here.)

Originally posted Apr 16, 2004 Published in issue #760 Apr 16, 2004 Order article reprints