The Mockumentary Sitcom: A Closer Look at Form
It’s been said that we’re living in a golden age of television. The past few years have seen harrowing dramas, clever cartoons, and fresh takes on comedy gracing the silver screen. The sitcom genre in particular has been re-energized by a “new” format: the mockumentary.
In truth, the mockumentary style, a form of fiction that appropriates nonfiction conventions that are hallmarks of documentary, appeared a long time ago in mediums that preceded television. For instance, the famous War of the Worlds broadcast, during which narrator Orson Welles used a series of fake news bulletins to suggest that an alien invasion was happening, could be considered one of the first mockumentaries. In this instance, the format was described as “cruelly deceptive.” The term became popular in the mid-1980s when Rob Reiner, the director of This Is Spinal Tap, used it to describe his film about a popular English band going on tour. Today, the mockumentary has found a comfortable place in comedy television. The most notable are American sitcoms such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family, which will serve as the primary focus of this article.
These shows function as intersections between the real and the unreal as they effectively parody documentaries. They play with the boundary between fact and fiction by looking and “feeling” real, but occasionally flagging themselves as fictional. They are also wildly successful. The Office has appeared on several top TV series lists and has been hailed as having one of the best casts on TV. The second season of Parks and Rec was called the most impressive comeback in TV history, and in 2012, Time Magazine named Parks and Rec the #1 TV series of the year. Modern Family has won 18 Primetime Emmy Awards and is praised for its realistic depictions of family life.
Why do American audiences and critics alike love mockumentaries? What is it about talking heads, casual dialogue, and improvised scenes that capture our attention and garner such critical praise? After all, the premises of these popular mockumentaries seem underwhelming on paper. The Office revolves around the everyday lives of office employees in the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Parks and Rec follows Leslie Knope and other employees of the Parks and Recreation department in Pawnee, Indiana, and their main objective is to build a park in an abandoned lot in town. Modern Family focuses on three families living in the Los Angeles area, who are interrelated through Jay Pritchett and his children, Claire and Mitchell.
These plotlines don’t revolve around life or death conflicts, lifestyles of the rich and famous, risqué scandals, or glamorous locations. Instead, it’s the social dynamics of a 9 to 5, life in a small town, or the day-to-day lives of middle-class families. And that’s precisely why they work. We see exaggerated versions of ourselves in these shows: our socially awkward or over-eager bosses (Michael Scott and Leslie Knope), our slacking coworkers (April Ludgate), the office romance that everyone gossips about (Jim Halpert and Pam Beasley), our self-proclaimed “cool dad” (Phil Dunphey), and our ditzy sister (Hayley Dunphey).
Furthermore, these mockumentaries have a “feel good” nature. Many popular shows focus on characters facing serious, stressful, high-risk situations. But these successful mockumentaries are good at heart: characters struggle and face hardship, but the general tone is positive. Trials are low stakes and typically resolved easily. They are reminiscent of our real lives, focusing on both the everyday ups and downs and typical milestones: getting married, having kids and raising them, going to work, and connecting with family and friends. It’s both relaxing and reassuring to see the characters we love experiencing the same things that we do. We cheer when Leslie and Ben Wyatt finally tie the knot, we laugh when Jim pulls endless pranks on Dwight Schrute, we feel proud when Hayley’s family celebrates that she was waitlisted at college. It’s as though we’re living our lives right alongside the characters.
Mockumentaries also have a “natural” feel that helps viewers to relate to the action and characters. There is no laugh track on The Office, Parks and Rec, or Modern Family, so we are not constantly reminded that they are fictional. The characters’ speech typically comes across as unscripted due to casual and occasionally awkward dialogue. Improvised scenes also add to the “real” feeling of a documentary: although the scripts are often brilliant on their own, actors such as Ty Burrell and Amy Poehler have said that sometimes, cast members will come up with hilarious lines on the spot. The format itself causes the subject to become even funnier. Even though what’s happening on screen may seem absurd, it is framed by the “rational” perspective of a documentary. This allows us to see just how ridiculous and silly the things we deal with in real life can be.
The humor of these mockumentaries can be heavily influenced by social, pop culture, and political commentary. The characters on Parks and Rec love Game of Thrones, and Dunder Mifflin’s employees make countless Harry Potter references. Furthermore, current political issues can sometimes be front and center. On Modern Family, Mitchell Pritchett and Cam Tucker are a gay couple, and many viewers feel this representation is important at a time when gay marriage is still a hotly debated issue. These cultural and political references serve two purposes. We feel like we’re in on the joke, and we exist in the same universe as our favorite characters. We watch the same shows, read the same books, and listen to the same music. It’s also gratifying to see these characters equally frustrated with societal issues.
The success of the mockumentary will most likely persist. Few sitcoms currently use the format, but those that do are clearly regarded as high quality television. The style has entertained audiences and critics through various mediums for decades, and many have recognized its importance. It has already changed the sitcom genre and has firmly established its value as a medium for satiric storytelling that audiences easily connect to.
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