Film

Lie to Me: The Rise of TV’s Unreliable Narrator

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“Oh my God. Sorry. Gosh. I just can’t believe it actually happened.” This is an omniscient narrator speaking. Jane the Virgin’s Latin Lover Narrator (yes, that is how he is credited) has just witnessed the titular heroine tie the knot at the end of the CW show’s second season. Everything has led to this moment, but, as the all-seeing eye, doesn’t he know that? Why can’t he believe it? Is this real shock or is it irony or is it something else? In fact, it’s unclear, because this lover is nothing if not ambiguous — that is his charm.

Libby Hill, Los Angeles Times TV critic, has credited Jennie Snyder Urman’s satirical adaptation of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen with reinventing the voice-over through its “omniscient and impotent” narration, and the dulce de leche tones of Anthony Mendez have turned him into a cult favorite and Emmy regular (yes, reader, it is true, several years ago the Emmys added a category for narration). He is presently the only nominee ever to preside over a fictional narrative.

In a world that is increasingly confounding, storytellers who demystify it are held up as Gods (or Emmy nominees). Mortal Gods. Because in a world that also no longer believes in objective truth, the unreliable narrator is our only claim to authenticity. The early 2000s predicted this, when “reality” television blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction, cobbling together scraps of fact to create an executive’s notion of gospel, documentaries super-sizing personalities so otherwise disposable stories would be easier to digest. We rely on narrators to reconstruct our fractured present, but only now are we allowing them to be as human as we are.

In last year’s enlightening Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, Jason Mittell writes that voice-over narration, while historically atypical in the medium, is often used merely for exposition and tone. First-person omniscients like Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw exist primarily to escort us through the story unraveling around them. Then there are the first-person confidants — Veronica Mars’ teen detective, Dexter’s eponymous serial killer, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood — who not only guide us through the narrative but also their own minds. Of course, the once-upon-a-time third-person omniscient is the most familiar, recalling our childhood storybooks and assuming the most authoritative voice we can rely on. But then there’s the Latin Lover — he’s also a third-person omniscient, but he is definitely not reliable.

“Unreliable narrator” was coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in 1961, in his now-classic The Rhetoric of Fiction. “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not,” Booth wrote. Fictional first-person narration in literature dates back to around the 16th century, while experimental first person didn’t arise until three centuries later, kicked up from the rubble of industrialization to settle in the pages of William Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

“In only slightly oversimplified terms, then, social and technological progress’s gradual depersonalization of modern life has occasioned an intensified focus on the individual in literature in an apparent effort to counter or humanize or merely come to grips with the modern world,” wrote William Riggan in Pícaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator. In other words, a more convoluted life assumes less clarity, which demands more elaborate narration, which is to say more erratic narration.

TV was slow to catch up. Though occasional Rashomon-esque voice-overs date back to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Matt Zoller Seitz noted in 1994 in the New York Times that My So-Called Life, the ABC series about a fifteen-year-old girl searching for her identity, “showcases the most sophisticated use of the unreliable narrator ever seen in network drama.” The series’ original concept revolved around teenager Angela Chase’s diary — in all its contradiction and cis white suburban privilege — and some of her entries were ultimately read by actress Claire Danes as voice-overs. “We barely talked, so when we did, it came out sounding really meaningful,” she narrates in “Self-Esteem” before telling her crush: “There’s a tiny leaf in your hair.”

Inconsistencies like these — “subjective experiences rather than objective truths,” as Caryn Murphy put it in Dear Angela — are common in our everyday lives, but are often painted over by Hollywood. Contradictions are harder to process than truisms, and making viewers work necessarily means losing a few of them. TV execs thus prefer the traditional authoritative narrator, the omniscient who sees, knows, and tells all with no agenda (except, of course, that of its creator). But series creator Winnie Holzman preferred Angela’s life to be real, lies and all. “I wanted [Angela] to be given her due as a human being and as someone to be respected and allowed her own complexities,” she told me when I interviewed her for In My Humble Opinion, my book on My So-Called Life.

Angela Chase matured early. The unreliable TV narrator only really started raising its voice in the mainstream a decade after MSCL. Around the mid-2000s, shows like Desperate Housewives, Veronica Mars, How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl, Pushing Daisies, and Dexter introduced voice-overs that weren’t quite as conventional as before. The unscripted scripts of Big Brother and Survivor had proven that not only are our own stories subjective, they are doubly so in the hands of the filmmakers and TV producers who project them to the world. This two-tiered unacknowledged unreliability was perhaps necessary for TV to willingly embrace unreliable narrators in scripted shows. It was necessary for Arrested Development, anyway.

Filmmaker Ron Howard’s blank-except-not narrator in the Fox sitcom, which premiered in 2003, was designed to evoke the documentary genre. “It seemed like it would be a great way to play against what was emerging as a very frantic half-hour, with his calm, familiar, trustworthy voice,” creator Mitchell Hurwitz told The A.V. Club in 2005. But Opie did more than that. In Complex TV, Mittel outlined the various ways in which his voice swam against the Bluth family current.

“Howard’s deadpan narration often serves to humorously undercut or comment on the character’s action,” he wrote, “providing narrative momentum, clarifying recall and comedic density.” With a similarly intricate storyline, Jane the Virgin creator Snyder Urman also relied on voice-over for coherence. “It was in that third and final draft that I decided to put the frame on with the narrator and have a bit of a meta-telenovela happening at the same time,” she told The A.V. Club in 2014, adding, “The tent is our narrator. He connects everything for us.”

Jane the Virgin premiered in 2014, the year narration could suddenly be heard everywhere from network sitcoms like Selfie and A to Z to the dueling unreliable voices of cable dramas The Affair and True Detective. The industry recognized the change: That same year the Emmy Awards split the Outstanding Voice-Over Category (which itself had only been a category for five years) into Outstanding Narrator (Mendez’s soapbox) and Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance (The Simpsons’). “As with longform and reality, this split acknowledges and accommodates a general industry uptrend in the distinctly different achievements that are VO narration and VO character performance,” the Television Academy’s Board of Governors said in a statement — which is not to say the Latin Lover is TV’s new go-to boy toy.

“The unreliable narrator is commonplace in fiction, but not in television,” Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote last year. “On TV, narration is often used to pull viewers into a familiar blandness, a genre and tone they’ve experienced before.” She extolled Mr. Robot, whose mentally unstable hero provides its first-person voice-over, for having an “unreliable narrator in extremis.” Creator and hyper-referential storyteller Sam Esmail was inspired not by television but by film, which boasts a richer array of narrators due to its lengthier history. His model was Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver’s fictional killer who famously asks himself whether he is talking to himself. “Voice-over gets a bad rep a lot of times in screenwriting because people think it’s lazy… but when it is done really well, it just adds this other dimension,” Esmail told NPR last year. “It creates this sort of intimate relationship with the audience that you really can’t do just with dialogue and scene.”

So you might not know who to trust on TV, anymore, but at least that’s something you can rely on.