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Another waste of a big production budget

Above are the opening 38 seconds of Season 2, Episode 1, of The Expanse. How much of the dialogue can you understand?

As if things weren’t already scary enough out in the real world, we now have to add the possibility of a global pandemic to our worry list. Good mental health requires some escape.

It’s funny how we find comfort in dystopia stories even as the world feels more and more dystopian. Mostly what we’re looking for, I think, is courage. Only the right kind of characters can leave us with courage. Those characters are always good, even if (and probably because) they are weak, damaged, and scared.

As streaming services flourish and the cost of publishing is reduced to next to nothing, never have so many stories been available to us. And yet finding stories that are fit to watch or fit to read is a hard task. I wanted so badly for The Expanse to be fit to watch that I watched the entire first season, hoping that subsequent seasons (which got better reviews) would get better. But I gave up after watching a few minutes of Season 2, Episode 1.

I had many complaints about the first season. A big one was that I just couldn’t understand most of the dialogue. Partly because I couldn’t understand the dialogue, and partly because the screenwriters seemed to want us to be confused, I read the Wikipedia plot synopsis after each episode to make sense of what I had just seen.

I Googled for search terms such as “The Expanse” and “confusing dialogue,” and I found that I wasn’t the only person with this complaint. Other people’s explanations were the same as mine: The sound track is too loud and too noisy. We often can’t hear the dialogue because it’s buried under noise and bad music. Many of the actors speak English poorly. Much of the dialogue is ironic and smart-ass, thus much of the dialogue doesn’t really mean what was said. So you have to run all the dialogue through your irony analyzer. But I also found that the sound designers of The Expanse were very proud of their awful work. That’s not very promising for future series.

My Googling also found some serious discussions about the larger problem of incomprehensible dialogue. As the quality of video (and the screens we watch it on) get sharper and sharper, the quality of the audio is going to hell. Among the reasons given for this were that the people who do the production work have read the script and have watched each scene many, many times. They know what the characters are saying, so they fail to realize that the rest of us don’t. So they add noise.

Plus I think there is a kind of narcissism with sound designers, who want to make damned sure that you’ve heard what they’ve done. They’re like the loud (and mediocre) live musicians who intentionally make conversation impossible in pubs and lounges. They want you to hear them and only them whether you like it for not. There actually is a pub a few miles from here in a beautiful riverside setting, but I left and have never gone back after my iPhone measured a band’s volume at well over 100 decibels, and the band arrogantly refused requests to turn it down. I often wonder if many people whose lives involve lots of amplifiers and headphones can’t even hear anymore.

But inaudible dialogue and an intentially confusing script aren’t the only problem with The Expanse. It wants to be hip and edgy, so it disdains classical forms. By comparison, Battlestar Galactica was positively Shakespearean, with a brilliant cast actually trained in accents and diction, and with dialogue that was sharp and smart and efficient. We never struggled to understand what was said or what was happening.

In The Expanse, everything is so gritty and vague that it’s hard to figure out whether there are any good guys. They all seem pretty bad. Though, by the end of Season 1, the Holden character (Steven Strait) is showing some signs of being a good guy.

Once again I’m searching the galaxy for stories that are worth telling, for writers who can write, and for characters who don’t have marbles in their mouths.

Note: In the video clip above, I get the words “cover me,” “light me up,” and “left.” How did you do?

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