Once upon a time, humans were microscopic cells. Over time we evolved to what we are today – erect, smart and capable living beings, and have done great things since then. We created nations and democracies, discovered planets, built technology, and more. At the same time, we found a way to capture it all via documentaries. In the late 20th century, man created something else. This something was so beautiful that life without it would have been so dull. We brought together television and documentaries, added a dash of humour to make some mind-blowing mockumentaries to, you know, fill the gaping void in our lives.
I like to believe good TV isn’t just born, it’s made. Like human evolution, mockumentaries too have changed and evolved to their current form. But I’m perhaps getting a little ahead of myself here. To understand its progress we must first understand what mockumentaries really are.
What Is This Mockumentary Thing?
If you have ever been anywhere near a TV in the past twenty years, you have probably had a glimpse of a mockumentary style drama. But if you have not, I, as a layman (with no real expertise in film studies), would like to help you. I would describe it as a direct actor-to-camera approach of performance, with an interview or a confession element to it. With characters well-aware that they are being filmed, the show is often characterized by people looking directly at the camera.
Breaking the fourth wall or looking directly at the camera or the audience is seen as a cardinal sin in the regular setup of television or theatre. But in a mockumentary, it’s written in; it’s even an expected course of action.
The earliest mockumentary “The Trailer Park Boys” didn’t arrive at the scene till 2001. This isn’t the oldest mockumentary either. But it’s nearest to the era in which mockumentaries started to bloom and take shape. And this show, much to everyone’s surprise, did quite well and ran till 2018.
Three months after the Trailer Boys premiered came the show that defined the mockumentary genre – The Office. The British one.
Though the show had a short life on screen, it somehow managed to appropriate shaky camera work and the classic camera confessions- now quintessential in any mockumentary. Undoubtedly, this show laid the groundwork for the future of this genre.
I want to preface by mentioning that mockumentaries are a form of crass comedy, often loud and obnoxious. These aren’t the kind of shows that make you give a sly smile or smirk. Mockumentaries will make you downright fall on the floor laughing.
The Office (US): Establishing Mockumentaries
Mockumentaries weren’t made by Americans and especially weren’t made for an American audience. The Trailer Park Boys was Canadian and the original Office was British. For the US Office to even be on air was a miracle, and NBC was their only taker. In fact, for the longest time, NBC was the only network that saw the potential of mockumentaries whether it was the Office or Parks and Rec or 30 Rock.
The Office took the mockumentary style to a whole new level. It wasn’t just the shaky camera holding now. You could visibly see the “boom mic drop” moments; actors even looked at the camera in the middle of a scene to express. They wanted this to be a real show about real people at an office, and to a degree it was quite successful in portraying that. And despite all its faults, the show came as close to perfection as it could.
This is also one of the few shows that ties the cameramen into the show; the documentarians will often point the characters to happenings around their office, and in the end, there’s an entire plotline in which the show explains why the documentary is really being filmed.
Arrested Development and Parks & Rec: Achieving a Balance
Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development are two other shows which defined mockumentaries. Parks and Rec had a similar fan following and also a similar style to The Office, but they never tied in the elements of why there were people following them around with cameras. It did, however, have the “look at the camera and make faces” thing.
Arrested Development is a mockumentary but unlike The Office and Parks, it doesn’t surround a group of people who work together, but instead a wealthy family. It also has the added element of a snarky and catty narration. Although this show was underappreciated during its run, it did eventually find an audience; and in its own right brought something different to the mockumentary style – the big family scene.
Modern Family: The End of Mockumentaries
Following in the footsteps of Arrested Development, the ABC created its own rendition of a family-style mockumentary – Modern Family. Like its predecessors, it had faulty camera operations and interview confessions, but it did change the landscape by introducing more anecdotes and life lessons.
This made Modern Family an anomaly; their style was unlike anything else seen in past and their new concoction or take to the genre wasn’t easy to replicate. So as its popularity increased, the number of other mockumentaries on TV fell and new shows in the style started to tank.
Today, the market for mockumentaries is slim. I like to believe that the style was very particular and finicky; and even though it can adapt, too much change can actually do more harm than good. But, nonetheless, the genre does produce a good show every now and again. “American Vandal” and “What to do in the Shadows?” are the shows you can catch up with if you want to explore some recent avenues into mockumentaries.
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