In Defense of Difficult Dialog

by Peter Suderman

Wire-scribe George Pelecanos defends the show's sometimes-difficult, regional-aphorism-filled dialog from Brits who watch it with subtitles:

"We wrote it so audiences would have to work at it!" he said in an interview with The Independent. "We were not going to compromise in making it immediately accessible for everyone. It [subtitling] kind of reminds me of scenes from that [1980 disaster film spoof] comedy, Airplane!, when two black guys speak, and subtitles appear on the screen."

I sympathize. When it comes to literary dialog, clarity isn't always a virtue. I'm reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian right now, a book that employs archaic, regional dialects to tell its story. It can be tough going, but it's worth it, both for the sheer beauty of the prose and the linguistic subtleties McCarthy works in. Even a simple lines, like the one the book's protagonist utters when he runs into an old acquaintance -- "I know ye, he said. I'd know your hide in a tanyard." -- are improved by the book's tough, Texas vernacular.

Of course, you can take this idea too far; as I've argued to friends in the past, fiction shouldn't be a slog. But that doesn't mean the writers should do all the work for you, either. The Wire -- my pick for TV's best-ever drama -- struck a nearly perfect balance between challenging and entertaining. And despite the occasional difficulty one might have in following the show's cryptic exchanges, subtitling the dialog makes a mockery of all the effort Pelecanos and his fellow writers put into achieving that balance.