One of the delightful things about buying television on DVD, aside from being able to watch my favourite stories whenever I feel like it, is DVD commentaries. Some shows seem more committed to this than others; Freaks and Geeks, for example, has a gazillion episode commentaries, while Six Feet Under has a few scattered out over the course of each season. I happen to be totally besotted with episode commentaries, because I think they’re an interesting point of connection between viewers and creators, and because they sometimes have really interesting content.
However, sometimes DVD commentaries really suck. I think that sometimes people just aren’t that into them, or they are being recorded in a hurry, or the people being featured are distracted, but for whatever reason, they can be really, really terrible. And while I doubt that the kind of people who record DVD commentaries read this website, I thought I’d explore the reason why some of them are so terrible, and how they might be improved in the future.
The DVD commentary which I hate the most is The Narrative, in which the person or people just narrate the action on screen. Strangely enough, since I’m watching, I don’t actually need to be told what’s going on on screen, although I guess The Narrative might be useful for the blind. And I’m talking literal narrative, here, as in “here she is heading to her mother’s house…she slams the car door and stomps up the stairs…now the camera is pulling away for a long shot…” I suspect that The Narrative arises from not really knowing what to talk about, and not wanting to have a totally silent DVD commentary, but it’s extraordinarily annoying.
I’m also not a big fan of The Rambler. In this style of commentary, the person or people ramble on long tangents which don’t really seem to be related to anything. Usually The Rambler is filled with effusive praise for the cast and crew, which is, you know, nice in small amounts, but it gets dull pretty fast. There are only so many times you can hear “I loved the props department on this series…I mean, look at that bowl! Where did they find that bowl! Did you know that bowl was found by the props department?”
The Constant Critic is also not terribly enjoyable. I think it’s interesting when people occasionally criticize their own work “in retrospect, I would have shot this differently,” but when it’s dragged out across an entire episode, it’s really frustrating. I wonder if it’s really subverted rage at the network or other people trying to control the creative content. Whatever the cause, I get it. And often the constant critic has a recurrent theme, which gets rather dull; for example, Joss Whedon bitches about the “over over two shot” on almost every single episode commentary; it was interesting at first to hear him talk about camera technique, then kinda cute that he berated himself for it and kept doing it, then just annoying.
There are a couple of things that make an episode commentary interesting or fun. I love it when the commentary on a movie or television episode features a cast and/or crew just getting together and having fun, because it kind of feels like I’m watching it with them. Sure, some of the inside jokes go over my head, but they occasionally drop interesting information, or tell funny stories, and you get the sense that they had fun making the work, and they’re still having fun. Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk on “War Stories” (Firefly) are a great example.
I also love episode commentaries in which people get technical, talking about technical challenges which occurred during production and how they dealt with them, and discussing things like camera technique and some of the tricks used, from how images are framed and composed to the integration of CGI. Costume designers and writers sometimes have interesting commentary, and I think it would be fun to hear from a DP, although I haven’t spotted one on any of the episode commentaries I’ve seen. I imagine that this doesn’t interest everyone, and that’s quite all right, but I rather enjoy it.
My absolute favourite kind of episode commentary, though, is probably the one in which people talk about intent and meaning. I don’t need creators to explain everything to me, but I do like hearing them talk about the intent of particular episodes, storylines, or concepts. I enjoy discussions of the critical response to their work, and I like hearing about the things that they were trying to do. Joss Whedon and Alan Ball are both very good at this; they manage to talk at length about complex issues without being dull or pedantic about it, and it’s really increased my personal depth of understanding.
I honestly can’t imagine how enjoyable it is to do episode commentaries. If people are asked to comment on episodes they don’t really like, or don’t feel much a connection with, or on shows/movies they didn’t really enjoy working on, I imagine that it’s probably not very fun to relive things in an audio booth. Even when people have fun, I suspect that film is a lot like theatre, filled with a lot of “you had to be there” moments which can’t really fit into an episode commentary; I always think it’s funny to watch panels where people get asked about the “silliest thing that ever happened on set” and everyone just looks blank and uneasy, because, you know, you kind of had to be there. I’m sure that episode commentaries are part a promotional contract, not really done because people love to do them, and that’s really too bad, because sometimes they can be so great for viewers.