"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.