Closed captions, when done well, provide access to dialogue and other important sounds for those who need them, such as deaf and hard of hearing viewers. But captions have the potential to do much more — and to do so for a wide range of viewers. I’m interested in documenting the ways, big and small, that captions can make visible those layers of meaning that may not be readily available on the uncaptioned surface of things.

Here’s a very simple example from an episode of Arrested Development, entitled “Motherboy XXX” (Season 2, episode 13). (Watch the full episode on Hulu.) Buster’s boyhood crush on his mother is a recurring theme on each of the Fox TV show’s three seasons. Indeed, the sitcom regularly signals Buster’s own arrested development through a parade of jokes about his unnaturally strong attraction towards his mother.

Within the context of Buster’s crush, the triple-X in “Motherboy XXX” takes on added significance. On the surface, and especially for those watching with captions turned off, XXX is simply the Roman numeral for 30. That’s how Buster’s mother, Lucille, tells it. She refers aurally to “Motherboy 30,” the thirtieth anniversary of the mother-and-son “dinner dance aimed at promoting mother-son bonding.” But the triple-X caption adds another layer of meaning, one that plays on a running gag about the oddly intimate nature of the relationship between the overprotective mother and her immature and needy youngest son, a relationship that borders (saith the caption) on the X-rated. For a TV show that routinely explores perverse familial relationships (consider kissing cousins Maeby and George Michael; or the love triangle of Lucille, George Sr., and his twin brother Oscar; or uncle Michael and his niece Maeby singing “Afternoon Delight” together), the outrageous suggestion that there’s anything X-rated between Lucille and “motherboy” Buster is simply another in a string of outrageous, often hilarious and boundary-crossing revelations about the Bluth family. (Indeed, references to and story lines about incest recur often enough on the show to warrant their own separate discussion on the show’s Wikipedia page.)

This second, partially hidden meaning is also right there in the title of the episode for all to see, but I would suggest that the original TV audience didn’t have the same access to the title of the episode as Web and caption viewers do. Caption viewers also benefit from a visual reminder during the episode itself.

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