It’s the end of the day, and I’m watching The Office, a ritual I’ve adopted out of sheer necessity. Mundane things make me feel calm. It’s the casino episode, because that is objectively the best piece of television there is. Halfway through, my roommate strides into the room; he, like me, needs The Office the same way other people need a glass of Merlot. He notes that it’s the casino episode — the one where Jim first confesses his love to Pam — and sits down.
And then: “Not the subtitles again.”
I’m watching with subtitles, as I’ve done since 16-year-old me discovered that Netflix had every season of Bones. I’m not hard of hearing at all — but this is a thing I need. In my mind, subtitles are necessary for any viewership, save for a cinema experience. (Although I’d really like to have a word with cinemas. I want every showing to have words at the bottom, not just foreign features.)
My roommate hates them; he claims the sight of the words on the screen distracts him from the action itself. “I’m too busy reading the script to look at the screen!” he argues.
I’ve heard the same argument from various other people in my life — my boyfriend, my brother-in-law, and my best friend from college, all get prickly when it comes to subtitles. I watched the first half of Wet Hot American Summer without them because my boyfriend and I were new; I didn’t need to expose my high-maintenance habit just yet. At the halfway point, though, I spoke up.
“Is it okay if we turn on captions?” I asked, pursing my lips as if I were asking a waiter for dressing on the side. (He let me put them on and has ever since, but not without some grumbling.)
There’s a balancing act when it comes to closed captioning. It’s like grocery shopping; you keep strolling down the aisle, and occasionally you might have to stop and stare at a nutrition label, but for the most part you can just drift along, grabbing at the necessary items along the way. I let my eyes graze the bottom of the screen — usually, you only need to glance at the words to know what they read.
It’s like reading a comic book or a graphic novel. When you read The Walking Dead, you’re not just reading the words. Nor are you just perusing the imagery. Your brain is synthesising these two data sets: the written and the drawn. I’ve never watched an episode of Game of Thrones and complained that I didn’t get a good enough look at Emilia Clarke.
For this reason, I’ve always argued that subtitles force you to actually watch the screen. There are so many other fun things to look at these days. (Hello, Twitter. Hello, Instagram. Hello, houseplant with a funny-looking stem.) TV alone doesn’t always do the trick. A few little words — sometimes yellow, sometimes white — serve as little television road signs, forcing you to pay attention to your surroundings.
Like so: If you watched the television premiere of Game of Thrones, you saw Jorah Mormont’s arm appear from inside a prison cell. He then spoke, but David Benioff chose not to show us his face. You might not have known it was Jorah Mormont. In fact, you might have taken this moment to get up and check on your roasted cauliflower. If you watched with subtitles, you would have known that it was Jorah Mormont. The subtitles announced his presence with a sweet “JORAH” plus colon just before he spoke. That’s what you call subtitle privilege. We, the subtitle-lovers, knew that our favourite lovelorn knight was in the picture. You, the subtitle-eschewer, knew nothing. (Like Jon Snow.) With info like that on the line, you’re not going to stop watching the screen, even if you have cauliflower in the oven, and it's burning.
My co-workers have attributed their need for subtitles, especially with shows like Game of Thrones, to thick accents or heavy mumblecore. I don’t disagree — a lot of prestige television involves mumbling and thick, heavily-coached accents. (We’re looking at you, True Detective.) Subtitles are simply a necessity, especially if you want to make sense of the action.
I would push that argument a little further, though: I want to read the script. I’m the person at the art museum who’s going to read the entire blurb next to the painting. I’m also a fan of the audio walking tours and when the waiter describes the specials. The script is half the process! That’s the foundation for the movie or show, and I want to see it! Show me how the sausage is made.
(Alas, sometimes, if you read the subtitles, you will become keenly aware of how bad a script is. Famous In Love could have been a fun show for me. It wasn’t.)
If you hate subtitles — I know there are many of you out there — consider this: There are people in this world who have one job, and that is to write subtitles. They are the ones who come up with stuff like this:
I know that directors probably didn’t envision their art this way. Cinematographers want the screen to have a specific look, blah blah blah. The actors want to communicate the words — they don’t want some little bottom-screen scroll to help out. But captions were meant as an assistive tool for people that are deaf and hard of hearing — and I like them too. I enjoy the art of them. I'm needy and high-maintenance when it comes to television. I don't just need to hear everything; I need to know exactly how it was said, who said it, and whether the sound effects are bestial squalls or gentle donkey brays. If you want to watch with a clean screen, go elsewhere. Or, better yet, get over your fear of subtitles.