Where Next for the Mockumentary Aesthetic?

NBC’s ‘The Office’ finished up last year after a (mostly) successful 9-season run. It’s sister show, ‘Parks and Recreation’, heads into the 2014/15 schedule with a limited home stretch. ‘Modern Family’ juggernauts into a sixth season on ABC with critics already sharpening their knives.

These three series show how this particular form of American comedy has evolved. ‘The Office’ was transported from the British version and stuck most closely to the documentary conceit. Albeit the forms became more subtle in the middle of its run, it then took pride of place in the complex, meta-textual turns of its final year.

‘Parks and Recreation’, which shares a particular Greg Daniels strand of DNA with ‘The Office’, made several changes to the aesthetic. It introduced the jump-cut into its talking head segments, allowing for greater room for improvisation from its performers. It made greater use of other media forms, such as the television talk show, news programme, and local radio station, mainly for quaint parody with a distinct ‘Simpsons’ influence. ‘Parks and Recreation’ also became a more expansive series which focused less on the characters relation to the camera and more on the relations between the characters themselves.

‘Modern Family’, meanwhile, plays down the fact that it uses the documentary form at all. The talking-head sequences are far more organically tied to the narratives, and the camera is a far less intrusive tool than compared to the other shows. While in season one it is easy to see how Phil Dunphy might be trying to play up to the camera his “cool dad” persona, there is very little in ‘Modern Family’ that points to these characters being aware of the camera’s presence. Therefore it sits much more closely to the crop of single-camera comedies such as ‘The Mindy Project’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ rather than ‘The Office’.

The newly-crowned Emmy award winner ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ is either an example of the aesthetic going full-circle or another tweak to the formula. While it doesn’t utilise some of the conventions of the above series – talking heads, through-the-blinds shots, self-aware characters – it does feel like it still belongs to this small crop of successful shows. Replacing the talking head sequences with flashbacks a la ‘New Girl’ is a small tweak that takes us out of the documentary form.

But is the ‘Nine-Nine’ mainstream network’s way of telling us the mock-doc is over? Have audiences got bored of looking sitcom characters in the eyes? Or have producers just been inundated with such scripts that they have decided to go another way?

A sideline to one of my most recent essays for my course set out the argument that the mockumentary aesthetic was important to freeing up comedic actors to perform at their full potential – a brief internet search will show how many of the stars of the above shows are indebted to a hard schooling in the American improv circuits. Would a turn away from this style take us back to the more classic sitcom acting style, where performers have less of a contribution?

It’s be interesting to see if another mockumentary-like show manages the mainstream success of the ones mentioned in this blog post. The sitcom landscape is incredibly complex – the high ratings of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ still confounds in this context – and critically engaging with the next wave of popular shows is going to be an important part of understanding this area of culture.