“I don’t know what they’re saying half the time, but I’m hooked on the series”: Incomprehensible dialogue and integrated multimodal characterisation in The Wire

Michael Toolan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


This paper analyses and discusses dialogue in the hugely-celebrated HBO series, The Wire (2002–2008). One paradox that particularly interests me is that the dialogue is “involvingly incomprehensible” or, to be more precise, that it is quite difficult to understand fully, but no less absorbing and enjoyable for that – if anything, the reverse! Looking chiefly at one short scene (the discussion of the rules of chess, in episode 3 of series 1), I comment on how the interplay of verbal and visual and aural modes means that the “degradation” of the verbal channel – of the dialogue traditionally held to be crucial to effective communication of character and theme – is not, in this TV narrative, an obstacle. Since my comments are predicated on the assumed “opacity” of the dialogue, I present a relatively simple but workable empirical method of probing some aspects of film-dialogue comprehensibility, and report on results from a pilot study. I also argue, with some quantified evidence, that comparatively extensive lexical repetition (reflecting thematic or ideational repetition) compensates or “repairs” where dialogue may be significantly less than fully understood. And I emphasise that for comprehension of dialogue in The Wire the viewer-listener must attend to all the integrated means of communication at play in an unfolding exchange. As Rossi (this volume) and others note (e.g., Kozloff 2000; and now Quaglio 2009 and Bednarek 2010), fictional dialogue has a noticeable scarcity of a number of almost inescapable features of natural dialogue. One overarching consideration lies behind both the relative rarity, in fictional film dialogue, of unresolved topics, incomplete exchanges, ignored or misheard turns, self-repairs and recycled utterances; and the relative prominence in that dialogue of coherence, focus, and teleological efficacy (see also Altman 1992; Chion 1994). That consideration is the overarching narrativity of the construct: the talk’s role in telling a story, in representing individuals experiencing change. This, more than the dialogue’s fictionality or artistic status, or the fact that film dialogue is usually scripted before it is spoken and filmed (i.e., exists first as writing), seems to be responsible for the succinct focussedness of most dialogue in film narratives. The implicit priority accorded to narrativity in turn reflects the wider communicative context of (commercial) TV series generally: the need to entertain or otherwise enrich viewers and be attractive to advertisers and sponsors.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTelecinematic Discourse
Subtitle of host publicationApproaches to the language of films and television series
EditorsRoberta Piazza, Monika Bednarek, Fabio Rossi
Place of PublicationAmsterdam/Philadelphia
PublisherJohn Benjamins
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)978 90 272 8515 7
ISBN (Print)978 90 272 5615 7
Publication statusPublished - 2011

Publication series

NamePragmatics & Beyond New Series


  • film dialogue; intelligibility; characterisation


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