Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Mockumentary Format, and Why I Am Sick of It

"We'd rather be making the movie that we're making with the mockumentary movie instead of the movie we're making." - Home Movies, season 3, episode 10, "Storm Warning"

(I don't normally talk about television on my blog, but a few things I read today touches on some ideas about TV visual style that I'm interested in. I'm not big on recapping, so if you didn't see this week's episode of Community, this won't mean a lot to you.)

The votes are in, and it seems last night's episode of Community (probably my favorite current TV show, except for possibly Justified and How I Met Your Mother) "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," which assumed the mockumentary format of shows such as The Office, Parks & Recreation and Modern Family, is a hit with the critics. My most trusted sources for Community reviews (specifically Times' James Poniewozik, The AVClub's Todd VanDerWerff, & Hitfix's Alan Sepinwall) all had high praise not only for the episode (though all expressed reservations with certain story elements), but with it's abrupt, one-time change in style as well. Heck, Poniewozik (easily my favorite TV critic) praised the style as "so natural and seamless, they lent emotional gravity without getting in the way of the comedy and dialogue."

Community is a show known for taking potshots at other shows (though in friendly, playful way), so when "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" began by explaining that Abed was making a documentary about the gang's reaction to Pierce's (fictional) imminent death, I thought there was some serious potential to satirize the above-mentioned mockumentary shows. Yet, outside of a few throwaway lines addressing the topic, I thought the whole thing was a gigantic missed opportunity.

Let's back up. The mockumentary format is, in my opinion, a pox on television. As a fan of Parks & Rec and Modern Family (season 1 at least, haven't seen any of season 2 yet), and a former follower of The Office, I must emphatically state that those shows successes are all in spite of the format in which they are shot, not because of it. I firmly believe that these shows suffer as a result of the (often pointless) pseudo-documentary style, that they fail to use the style in an innovative or interesting way, and that they would all be better shows if done as a straight-forward one-camera sitcom, a la the usual episodes of Community. Modern Family might even kill as a two-camera, studio audience sitcom.

What's the problem with mockumentary style? Well, we all know the main criticisms. Abed even said them directly to the audience on Community this week. In brief, there's a narrative laziness to it. Instead of having to elegantly weave things like plot developments and character motivation into the dialogue and action of the shows, the writers often opt to simply cut to an interview with one of the characters explaining the story to the audience. This holds true with with jokes, too. Instead of incorporating the humor into the story and the character interactions, the writers can save an unfunny scene by cutting to a character quipping about it, completely independent of the action, continuity, whatever. Yes, these cutaways can be funny, but they are funny in a way that isn't as earned by the preceding scene; it would be equally funny if we cut from a scene of character interaction to a scene of a standup comedian telling an unrelated joke. The laugh is real, but not necessarily earned through craft.

The best mockumentary shows are the ones that have tried to go beyond using the style as a joke-streamlining system and played with the form a little bit. Arrested Development used its fictional documentary structure to jump forwards and backwards through time, offer bizarre digressions, and insert all sorts of delightful visual gags (and it also didn't resort to direct-to-the-camera testimonials from the characters). Its use of an omniscient narrator could be seen as poor storytelling, but that was redeemed by the narration's playfulness and silly meta elements (for instance having the narrator, Ron Howard, make references to himself and his career).

The U.K. version of The Office also justified its documentary trappings by virtue of its lead character. Ricky Gervais's David Brent wasn't just supposed to be a subject in a documentary, he was trying to hijack the documentary to be about himself. The show was just as much about Brent mugging for the camera and trying to steal focus from everything around him as it was about the goings on at his office. I don't feel that Modern Family, Parks & Rec or the American Office has a clear-cut reason, as that show did, for using this style.

Still, my real beef with these pseudo-docs is one I don't often see mentioned: they are all, almost without fail, visually dreadful.

There's an adage that film is a director's medium, and TV a writer's medium. I think there's a lot truth to that, and I keep it in mind when watching TV. I'm not looking for a television equivalent to Jacques Tati's Playtime when I watch a comedy series. I don't require shows to have the same level of visual artistry that I expect of film. Yet, I think television critics are so focused on the writing, the performances and the jokes that too often they accept form passively.

Why else do they put up with the visual styles of these shows, especially The Office and Parks & Rec? The herky-jerky camera work, the pointlessly rapid editing, the often dull color palette, the lack of detail or artful composition of the shots, all things that would be criticized in a movie. Yet, too often these silly, worthless, distracting stylistic quirks are given a pass when used on TV.

(Modern Family probably does the style the best, at least from a technical standpoint. It still tends to get on my nerves, but I have to credit them for using brighter, more visually elaborate sets, and trying to frame the shots in more complex, interesting ways. For instance, there's a great punchline in an early episode involving three identical bicycles that works because all the bikes show up together in a long, deep shot. If that same gag was on The Office, it might have given each bike a separate shot, or wildly panned back and forth between all the bikes, and ruined the timing. Plus there would have been a bunch of unnecessary reaction shots.)

Worst of all might be the zooms. Do you notice them? I can't un-notice them. The camera is constantly zooming in and out, on nearly every shot. Sometimes I suppose this is done to accent a joke (sort of like a visual equivalent of a rimshot), but more often than not they happen for no discernible reason. It's a stupid, pointless visual distraction, and one that I find often actively steps on the punchlines.

The zooms don't stop with the faux-documentaries. They are becoming prominent in action series as well. I recently watched the first season of Battlestar Galactica because of its sterling reputation, and was disappointed to find that the show's supposed ambitions of visual artistry mainly consisted of ceaseless mini-zooms. (I had other issues with the show as well). Even a show I mostly enjoyed, Dollhouse, couldn't stop zooming in and out on nearly every shot, making needless visual complication out of even straightforward scenes of dialogue.

I've talked about realism in film on here before and why I think it's a nebulous concept; this shaky/zoomy style is a particularly annoying symptom of it. (I think 24 is probably to blame for its prominence in modern television). Whatever sense of "realism" or immediacy one might achieve by shaking the camera and having an itchy zoom-finger is negated by the loss of visual coherency, focus, depth, etc. It's a cheap trick, a way to add a vague sense of grittiness that wasn't achieved via the writing, staging, or performances.

(And I should note here that I'm not always against shaky cam style; I'm actually a big fan of Paul Greengrass's Bourne films, which take all these stylistic elements I've bitched about and amplify them to absurd degrees. I just think these things only work when paired with careful, painstaking filmmaking, which is almost never the case on TV).

The realism/immediacy argument holds up even less for the mockumentary comedies, because those shows constantly violate their own reality. Supposedly we are watching a documentary about these people, yet the cameras are frequently in places they shouldn't be, are given unrestricted access to the subjects' lives, and will cut to all sorts of angles during a scene, as if everything is being shot by 10 simultaneous cameras when logic dictates that there should only be one or two.

Phew. Which is my long way of saying that, both structurally and visually speaking, Community had a lot of material to work with in terms of satirizing this style, and then completely blew it. Instead, it used the style the exact same way that Modern Family would have, and save a few cheeky comments from Abed, failed to really comment on the style or even do anything particularly creative with it.

Did I think "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" was funny? I thought it was hilarious. I think every episode of Community has been hilarious. But what makes the show something really special for me, something more than just a funny show, is its cinematic qualities. It's often visually well-constructed, full of detail, playful and imaginative in a way that a show like Parks & Rec never could be.

Think about the action movie homages in "Modern Warfare," or the blink-and-you'll-miss-it theft of the pen in "Cooperative Calligraphy." These are signs that the show is made by people who care about how it looks. They don't want us to just passively accept the visuals, they want us actively engaged by them. You could argue that "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" is an attempt to try something new visually on the show, and I appreciate that, but mostly I felt it limited the episode's potential rather than expand its possibilities.


Andy said...

I also hate the mockumentary trend big time. For TV shows and for a lot of horror movies that have been using the gimmick. It's supposed to simulate reality, but if anything it just looks more staged to me. And you're right about those awful zooms. No real documentary uses zooms that much, just fakes ones trying to capture a fake spontaneous moment. Hopefully this trend is on the way out, along with vampires.

Joseph said...

I actually think that the rise and gradual tackover of television by reality TV has introduced an entirely new narrative language which these shows emulate simply because it feels natural to viewers by this point. Shows like Modern Family do so little with the concept that all I can assume is that they simply believe people are more used to seeing this format than traditional scripted non-meta sitcoms. After all, "reality" TV is to a large degree scripted anyway, and many of these shows no doubt thrive on ad-libbing and spontanteous performance. So the line is really beginning to blur between the two (mostly, it just means that the casts of "reality" TV are far more attractive).

You're correct, however, that the original British Office (which I consider to be a work of astounding genius and human insight) is the only one which really understood the mechanic and played with the way it affects its subjects. Even more than being a brilliant disection of the way people behave in groups, its a discection of the way people behave when they're being watched, and the types of identity construction that go on when you point a camera at someone. Arrested Developement also has some creative fun with the mechanic, but only The Office really delves into what the structure of the 'documentary' form means.

Dan said...


Right on.

I never really made the connection between reality TV and the rise of mockumentary shows, but now that you've pointed it out, it seems unmistakable.

The fiancee and I recently caught up with season 1 of MODERN FAMILY, and I must admit that I'm a fan, though I was reluctant at first. I said in my post that I think it uses the mockumentary format better than similar shows do, but I still think it would be immeasurably better as a "normal" sitcom.

You're also right that the original OFFICE seems to be the only show that including the sorta uncertainty principle element, where the characters acknowledge the cameras, and where the camers alter their behaviors. (Although RENO 911 would occasionally make jokes about it too). This is not only conspicuously absent from other shows; the format is so frequently ignored or disrespected by the very shows using it, that its very usage seems pointless. So many of these shows have scenes where a camera is somewhere it shouldn't be, or someone says something they would never say in front of a camera, etc etc, that it just pulls me right out. Why establish this student fake-umentary reality if you're just going to violate it any time it isn't conducive to your jokes?

I know I should probably just ignore it at this point, especially because of how much I enjoy the writing and the characters on MODERN FAMILY and PARKS & REC, but I just can't let it go sometimes. So much squandered potential.

Joseph said...

Dan -- I think the shows you mention fail to acknowledge the camera and the format simply because the 'reality' shows that they're mimicking also go way out of their way to play down this fact. The whole zooming thing is a regular reality show stunt which allows their camera to be far enough off that the participants can get drunk and forget about them. They're constructed and conceived so that they edit storylines out of footage and coax people into saying things they wouldn't normally sat on camera. In short, they're so much like scripted television that the actual scripted television can mimic the formula and produce results virtually indistinguishable from the real thing (except, as I said, the scripted TV has uglier people).

Calling it "documentary style" might be something of a misnomer, actually, since documentaries are usually much more honest about their subjects, camera placements, etc. No self-respecting documentary would ever restage events or coax storylines and conflicts out of their subjects. Reality TV, on the other hand, uses the trappings of documentaries to create a different kind of storytelling (which, as it turns out, is vastly cheaper and equally popular). Hence I propose that these new shows (including the derivative and unimaginatively named --but admittedly very funny-- Modern Family) be called "reality-style" rather than "mockumentary" which suggests something subtly different.

In related news, Western Society can't end soon enough. Let's get one more season in of Futurama and then throw in the towel.

Dan said...

"Reality-style." I love it, it's perfect. Let's try to make this a thing.

Shenan said...

Heh, this isn't DIRECTLY related, per-say, but Joseph's last comment reminded me of this Cracked article I read awhile back:

Particularly similar sentiments about the bar for the lowest common denominator constantly moving lower and lower are in the last few paragraphs:

"There's a nation of awful people living among us, people incapable of experiencing empathy, but people who are acutely aware of how to illicit empathy in others. They use our emotions against us because they have no morality. Of this nation of people, there's a sub-nation full of the worst of the worst of that group, the bottom-of-the-barrel, where even the barrel itself is toxic. This group isn't satisfied with just not having morals, they want to challenge the idea of morality for the rest of us and test the limits of our collective decency.

And that group of people is in charge of green lighting new reality television shows every year.

Even the ideas that we, as a society, believed to be patently ridiculous, were turned into TV shows. On 30 Rock, NBC debuted the reality show Milf Island, where a bunch of young kids compete to have sex with an older woman. On Arrested Development, the cast refers to a new absurd reality show, Skating with the Stars. Both of those jokes work on the pretense that those shows are ridiculous exaggerations of reality TV, that they are demented fever dreams of entertainment, but not actual entertainment. Well, MILF Island found its home in The Cougar -- a show where a series of 20-somethings compete to win the affections of (but really take turns nailing) an older woman with children. Skating with the Stars found its home in Skating with the Stars.

The comedians of our culture can't invent a show too ridiculous for TV, because reality TV show producers have an infinitely lower threshold for embarrassment. And I can't invent a show that's too patently offensive for TV, because I'm not a sociopath.

But there are people who have no limits when it comes to either stupidity or amorality. And these people will be programming your television. Until the end of time.


Dan said...

Okay, well since we're on to reality TV, I have a few thoughts. I know a lot of people complain about the content of these shows, the values they espouse, the way we've elevated a bunch of talentless sociopaths to celebrity status, etc etc. And all that sucks, but it's not what really bothers me.

What bothers me is how far its lowering our standards for what constitutes as drama and entertainment. There is a certain unconscious interest lent to documentaries because of their supposed realness. Things become more watchable than they might be as a scripted program. Think about COPS. If it were a scripted cop show where 90 percent of the running time was devoted to police officers having circular conversations with desperate junkies, it would be boring as hell. But since it's real, it seems more interesting to us.

Yet, as Joseph rightly points out, reality TV isn't the same as documentary programming. Reality TV is often just a scripted as a sitcom, or barring that is heavily stage managed to a degree that removes most of the "reality." The stars are no less performing for the camera than an actor on a scripted show.

I don't really watch a lot of reality TV, but I've caught bits and pieces of shows like THE HILLS or JERSEY SHORE or whatever, and what blows my mind is how slack they are in their pacing, how dull all of the confrontation and drama is, how often nothing of interest is happening. If someone transcribed an average episode of THE HILLS and tried to turn into into a scripted drama, people would be bored as fuck by it.

And yet people find these shows entertaining because ITS SUPPOSED TO BE REAL. The sudden "reality" of the events adds interest to what would be completely tedious were it packaged as fiction. It is now considered entertainment to watch two people mildly bicker about an uninteresting topic with no wit or insight, just so long as those people are "real."

Of course, this applies to things I've personally enjoyed. I laughed hard at both BORAT and BRUNO, but a lot of the entertainment value for those movies decreases when you realize that:

1) Some of the jokes aren't really inherently funny, you just laugh because you think it's happening to a real person

2) A lot of it isn't nearly as off-the-cuff as it seems, with the "real" stuff often being heavily stage managed, and with plenty of scripted stuff stuck in the margins

In other words, when we think something is "real" it lends it a certain sheen of authenticity that is often little more than a facade. And as a result we're becoming less critical of things like story, character development, dialogue, visual coherency and so on.

People say that reality TV has lowered our standards in terms of the sexual and moral content of our entertainment, but people always have and always will have prurient interests. There's nothing wrong with that. The standards I think reality TV is really hurting is our standards for basic storytelling skills.

Shenan said...

OK, sorry to completely derail the conversation at every round of comments to something further from your original topic, but this so made a connection in my head about a similar issue in my favorite art form, poetry.

I think there's almost an opposite problem in poetry: the standard, at least in most poetry written in the last century or so (we're not talking about the fictional poetic storytelling of The Odyssey or Kipling's Gunga Din, or even more modern works like Brad Leithauser's Darlington's Fall), is truth. The confessional poem has set the standard for a poet's level of accountability in their writing; admit it, when you read a poem, your first instinct is that it is the author's own emotions, observations, and experiences, unless something indicates otherwise.

As opposed to TV programming, where the standard for so long was unreal that real is new and novel and thus inherently more entertaining than perhaps it's material and execution objectively should be (if it's possible to be objectively entertaining), the standard in poetry for so much of the majority is real, so that (and I'm guilty of this myself), if the work is a piece of fiction, we expect a lot more from it.

We expect a lot of research to be done and for the author to know or have experienced, to whatever degree is possible, what the fictional character is feeling and doing. That's not a bad standard to have, I'm not saying that. I'm saying we automatically place a lot more skepticism and expect the poem to work a lot harder when the author is writing about something far from their own experiences. We question the legitimacy of it when, say, a man writes from the perspective of a woman. Or a someone of one culture writes from the perspective of someone from another. We question whether or not they even really have the right to, ESPECIALLY with a medium like poetry, that has a reputation for being so personal.

Anyway. Rambles. Related...somehow.

Shenan said...

Also on that note: something that was drilled into our heads in grad school was the disconnect between author and narrator. And that we were never to assume that the narrator of the poem was a reflection on the author. Whenever we were in a workshop and were discussing Annie's poem, for instance, we started saying "Well in the third stanza when Annie talks to her mother..." we were corrected with "Not Annie. The narrator talks to her mother."

Dan said...

I think there's a fallacy in general with believing that personal or autobiographical art is somehow superior. It's why some people assume that an intimate, character driven drama is automatically better art than an action film. As if the only point of art is to reflect the experiences of the artists. I think it's a limiting way of looking at things.

And I don't think an artist has any obligations to realism or accuracy (unless they are trying to present their work as real or accurate). They just have an obligation to make good art. If I want facts or truth, I will read the news or a non-fiction book.