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Mockumentaries show reality for what it is

A perfect complement to the TV sitcom, the mockumentary form thrives in shows with performers like Lisa Kudrow in HBO’s “The Comeback.’’ A perfect complement to the TV sitcom, the mockumentary form thrives in shows with performers like Lisa Kudrow in HBO’s “The Comeback.’’ (John P. Johnson/HBO)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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As NBC’s “The Office’’ loses its mojo, I’ve increasingly been hearing TV viewers complain that the mockumentary sitcom is mocked out. To those people, the series’ decline marks the end of the 21st-century trend that has given us “Da Ali G Show,’’ “Reno 911,’’ and the jewel in the crown, the top of the heap, the sickest, most twisted kid in the class, “Arrested Development.’’

But I’m not writing an obituary for the mockumentary sitcom just yet. With “Parks and Recreation,’’ “Modern Family,’’ and “La La Land’’ delivering fresh twists, my faith in the format is alive and well. Pretending to be a documentary, simulating the air of fact with hand-held camerawork and direct-to-camera interviews, the mockumentary is more welcome than ever. It may be just the perfect foil for reality TV fakery and a still-needed alternative for the sitcom genre as a whole.

Indeed, mockumentaries - add to the list the HBO gems “The Comeback’’ and “Summer Heights High’’ - have become essential weapons in the battle against sitcom predictability. Like the elaborately produced, single-camera shows of the past decade, such as “Scrubs,’’ they offer another way to push TV comedy away from its longtime dependency on broad one-liners and rigid staging.

By letting the humor emerge organically, mockumentary comedies function almost as anti-sitcoms. They reject the strict artifice of conventional sitcoms - the timing, acting style, and choreography - in favor of real-life atmosphere. Rather than disappearing, the faux documentary cameras are in the room like characters, zooming in and out without an obvious rhythm. They convey to us a sense of what it might be like to be in close proximity to rare birds such as puffed-up boss David Brent of the British “Office’’ or deluded sitcom has-been Valerie Cherish of “The Comeback.’’ The gist of the humor isn’t in the jokes; it’s in the characters’ very presence, the way David and Valerie natter on while those around them cringe.

Borrowing verite camerawork enables a show such as NBC’s “Parks and Recreation’’ to get up close to the peripheral characters’ reactions, too, to find mocking humor in the expressions of, say, the glum assistant April (Aubrey Plaza), who quietly sucks the joy out of the room.

In a more conventional sitcom setting, April’s sullen glares might either go unnoticed or be wildly overplayed. They’d be center stage. Instead, they land in the back of scenes, there for the attentive viewers. Like the Pennsylvania-set “The Office,’’ the Indiana-set “Parks and Recreation’’ chronicles a dull workplace far away from urban hipness; the low-key atmosphere is integral to the comic fabric of the show.

ABC’s “Modern Family’’ takes a louder approach. It presents itself as a study of extended family, but that sober mission is completely sabotaged by the daily chaos and conflict of the three families involved. As the characters comment to the camera on their actions, a common documentary practice, humor emerges indirectly as they reveal their own disingenuousness. In his interviews, “cool dad’’ Phil (Ty Burrell) reveals a wonderfully sly side to what appears to be his relentless innocence and positivity.

Mockumentaries also serve a more subversive purpose on lineups crammed with hokey reality TV. Last week on the new CBS reality show “Undercover Boss,’’ the head of a waste-management company mingled with his employees, made forced small talk with them, and finally assembled them for a feel-good teaching moment. Like countless other reality shows, “Undercover Boss’’ is a shrewd synthesis of hand-held camerawork, loosely staged scenes, and awkward pauses. All fakery, it nonetheless purports to have documentary roots.

Cut to “The Office,’’ on which manager Michael Scott mixes with workers, makes clumsy chatter, and holds fantastically embarrassing meetings (where “Prison Mike’’ once gave a scared-straight lecture on “the clink’’). Using the camerawork and interview techniques of nonfictional programming, “The Office’’ is pure bluff, of course, even those “spontaneously’’ captured shots of the deadpan Jim and Pam.

Both “Boss’’ and “The Office’’ aim to suggest the truth, mixing fiction with documentary stylings to tell their stories. But “The Office’’ is clearly a charlatan, proudly displaying its fraudulence for satirical purposes. It’s the kind of comedy that renders the familiar documentary format suspect. It mocks the supposed objectivity of the straight documentary. It is the documentary’s sarcastic, needling, skeptical, and hysterical cousin.

As reality charades from “Undercover Boss’’ to MTV’s “The Hills’’ try to fool us into believing they are indeed reality, the mockumentary invites us to question all the stylistic trappings of fact. It’s a genre for a time when we need to keep our bunk-seeking instincts on alert, a light antidote for those who would believe anything presented in a documentary fashion.

When the disguised Sasha Baron Cohen interviewed and duped real people on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show’’ (where Cohen fleshed out the characters of Borat and Bruno), he was busting his victims for their automatic belief in the authority of the cameras. So is Marc Wootton on Showtime’s “La La Land,’’ as real Hollywood denizens buy into his ridiculously fake fame-seeking characters.

No, the mockumentary isn’t new. The roots reach from Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds’’ broadcast in 1938 through Woody Allen’s “Zelig’’ in 1983 to Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap’’ in 1984 and all the Christopher Guest-directed mocs since “Waiting for Guffman’’ in 1996. Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s HBO election satire “Tanner ’88’’ was an early step onto the small screen.

But in the past 10 years, mockumentary sitcoms have regularly been appropriating and upending verite conventions week in and week out. They are now a regular, critical point on the contemporary TV spectrum of truth that has Ken Burns documentaries at one end, then cable history shows, then button-pushing “Dateline’’ vignettes, then rigged reality series, all the way down to the unabashedly fictional. Long may they mock.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.