So, this week I wanted to focus a bit on different types of series and why some are harder to understand than others.
Comedies and drama – what are the differences?
The two main genres that I want to compare are comedies and drama. I think the type that you choose will help you get subtitle-free more quickly.
I’ve worked with a few students over the past year who wanted to understand crime or detective series. So I’ve worked with Chicago PD with one person and True Detective with another person. Police shows aren’t my favourite thing to watch, but I don’t mind watching them from time to time. Sometimes they can be enjoyable.
I’ve noticed a couple of problems with this type of series.
Firstly, the lead characters are often men. That’s not a problem in itself, but the thing is, often these men have voices that are hard to understand. They sound like they’ve been drinking and smoking all their lives! I think it’s the stereotype of the stressed-out police detective or the police inspector that makes their voice is hard to understand. They speak in a kind of hoarse whisper with a rough voice and low volume. Also they don’t articulate very clearly.
Plus, in this type of series, there is a lot of specialist vocabulary related to crime and police work.
So, here’s a quick example for you from Chicago PD So the main character here is really tricky to understand. I’m not 100% sure what he just said. I would have to watch it again.
Here’s a scene from True Detective which I’ve been working on with someone recently. So here you’ve got two characters who speak with a low voice. Especially Matthew McConaughey’s character has this low, gravelly voice that’s really hard to understand.
Obviously, once you get familiar with this type of show and the characters, and how the show is structured, it gets a bit easier. If you love detective shows, then of course you’ll be motivated to understand and to work on watching them without the subtitles.
But this brings me to a more general point about dramas because dramas are often going to be harder to understand than comedies for various reasons.In dramas, the dialogue is really important to the plot. You’re going to get a lot of dialogue, and it’s going to sound realistic because what they’re going for is realistic-sounding discussion between the characters.
Also, dramas are really focused on the relationships between the characters and the psychology between them. The dialogue is a device to go deep and understand them.
So, if we look at one of my favourite dramas, you’ll see what I mean.
One of my favourites of recent years is The Americans. It’s very hard to find clips on Youtube if you’re outside the US, so we’re going to look at the trailer for Season 5. One of the things that makes this series really good is the relationship between the two main characters and that develops in the dialogue that they have with one another.
If you don’t know it, this series is about two Soviet Union spies who live undercover in the US, pretending to be normal citizens. There’s a lot of dialogue and a lot of psychology. I’ll let you listen so that you can hear what I mean. So we just saw Elizabeth and Philip, who are the two main characters. In this series, the goal is to make their conversation sound realistic. Otherwise everyone else is really mysterious and speaking quietly. But the point is that it’s supposed to sound realistic.
So if you’re new to the subtitle-free journey, or you’re wondering what you could watch in English, I would recommend comedies rather than dramas. There are several things in comedies that will make your life easier. It’s less about the dialogue and the relationships between the characters. It’s more about the jokes.The dialogues are going to sound less realistic because the point is for the series to be funny, not to sound like a real conversation.
You have what’s called “canned laughter” in the background. This is where when there’s a joke, you hear the laughter of an audience. So you know where the jokes are. You know that was supposed to be funny, even if you didn’t understand it.
The characters are often a bit one-dimensional, so don’t expect deep character psychology coming through in the dialogues. That’s not the point in a comedy. The dialogue is just there to tell the jokes and to move the plot along and tell the story.
In comedies this is where you will hear catchphrases from certain famous characters like “how you doin'” from Joey in Friends or “bazinga” from Sheldon in Big Bang Theory. That’s what I’m going to show you a bit of just now.
Ok so here you’ve got all the classic features of a sitcom. You’ve got the canned laughter in the background, you have the familiar characters. On the right you have Penny, who’s the good-looking girl. You have the three nerdy guys because it’s Big Bang Theory. You had the joke about the worm, and I can’t remember the name of that character but he was scared of the worm. So you’ve got all the classic sitcom codes.
You can see there that instead of being oriented around dialogue it was all oriented around action. Even if you’re not sure what they’re saying, you can see the whole activity with putting the worm on the hook and the facial expressions and everything to help you out.
Rather than two people sitting there talking and you’re not actually sure what’s going on.
What to watch now
So character-based comedies like sitcoms are good because you see the same characters every week in the same context.
So you could watch Friends, even though you know how I feel about it. You could also watch something like “How I met your mother”, which is similar to Friends, but I enjoyed it a lot more.
Recent sitcoms I’ve enjoyed include “People of Earth” and “Man seeking woman”.
There are loads of classic sitcoms that you could watch. Last time I mentioned some series from the 60s and 70s. Some from the 80s and 90s that I really enjoyed growing up watching were “Red dwarf”, “Spaced”, “Only fools and horses”, “Father Ted”, “The Office”, and “Black books”.
You could also watch comedy sketch shows. Those are the shows where you have a collection of short sketches, just a few minutes each. In those sketches you will see the same characters from week to week and usually the joke is the same every time, even if the situation is a bit different, it’s usually the same character and the same joke in the same format. So it’s good for getting used to that particular joke and that particular character.
Some examples are shows like “Little Britain”, “The Fast Show”, or “Big Train”.
I’ve found a sketch from Big Train which I think you’ll appreciate. So it continues along the same lines if you want to watch the whole sketch.
If you need more inspiration for more sketch shows to watch, then I’m linking to a list of 40 shows under this video in an article.
Finally, there is a kind of compromise between comedies and dramas, which is the comedy drama, or dramedy – a mixture of the words comedy and drama.
Some famous examples include “Desperate housewives”, “Gilmore Girls” or “Ally McBeal”.
Comedy dramas are usually more realistic than comedies. You don’t have that canned laughter in the background like we just heard in the sketch on Big Bang Theory. The kind of gags and jokes are a bit less obvious. They tend to last longer, so 45 minutes to an hour rather than 20 to 30 minutes for a classic sitcom or sketch show.
The relationships between the characters and the character development are more important. You will get more scenes of dialogue rather than action because we’re getting in a bit deeper to the characters and their psychology. So that can be a nice alternative as well, although more challenging than just comedies.
I wanted to give a final mention to reality TV shows. So reality TV can be tough because you’ve got real people speaking how they normally speak, but that’s a great way to expose yourself to how native speakers really sound on the street if you’re trying to get used to native speech because you have to interact with native speakers. You can check out my post on that from a couple of weeks ago for more information.
So what about you? What types of series do you find hardest to understand? Do you avoid dramas, or do you find them easy to understand? Do you prefer comedies?
Let me know and give me some suggestions because I’m always on the look-out for series that aren’t too hard, or I’m interested in knowing which ones are challenging so that I can take a look, analyse them for you, and explain what’s difficult.
Thanks very much for reading and thanks for your comments!
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