In the past decade, there’s been a lazy trend creeping into television. Scripted comedies are so saturated with this jarring practice, we’re hardly distracted by it anymore. And yet, my dislike for the technique is overpowered by a surprising side-effect.
We can easily point to the success of The Office (UK) as the instigator of the documentary narrative trend. Ricky Gervais and company first effectively utilized the private interview as part of its narrative, and ten years later, The Office (US) is in its eighth season, Parks and Recreation shows no signs of stopping, and Modern Family is coming off a virtual sweep of the comedy Emmys. What is it about documentary framing that makes it so successful?
I first thought about it from a comedy perspective. What is the function of an interview to the commodity of the show (namely, making jokes)? What I noticed is that these interviews are often placed directly in the middle of a beat. In conventional narratives or multi-cam laugh track sitcoms, setting up a joke often means building context slowly and cumulatively throughout an episode. The flexibility allowed by being able to insert a joke’s set-up (the interview) at any point in a scene meant more randomness, less unified themes, and fewer running gags.
I liken the experience to a stand-up act. Anyone can write and perform jokes, with simple little set-ups and simple little payoffs. The best comedians are the ones who have a consistent stage persona, smooth transitions, consistency. The greatest compliment one comedian can give another is to say they have a “polished act” - a unique, unified performance. Conventional sitcom narratives are more like professional comedians, and documentary sitcoms are more open-mic night. That’s not to say pros don’t bomb now and again, and no-names kill an open mic, but in general, greater build-up leads to greater payoff.
So documentary sitcoms are less cohesive, and maybe a bit easier to write, but there are plenty of positives, too. For one, in the grand scheme of narrative technique, the interview is a relatively new device - I have nothing but admiration for anything that attempts to break the status quo. The interview is time-efficient: there can be a much greater density of jokes if each requires less set-up. Finally, randomness is fresh, engaging, and maximizes the chances of delivering a “winner.” I think Family Guy proved that system right: “Don’t like that joke? Wait five seconds and we’ll be going in a completely different direction.”
Okay, the documentary sitcom has its pros and cons, but it’s becoming overdone. Just because I liked Gervais/Carell in The Office doesn’t mean I want all my protagonists to explicitly face the camera and justify why they’re funny. To a certain extent, it always feel like the character being interviewed is pleading for your laugh. First part exposition, second part character comedy, then back to the action to make that exposition pay off. It’s worn, it’s lazy…
…and yet, an unforeseen benefit: The oversaturation of this documentary narrative massively contributed to sitcom audiences becoming jaded and apathetic to framing devices.
Take Modern Family. Either in the show’s pitch or pilot, the interviews were explicitly justified in the narrative - a documentarian is creating a film based on this, well, modern family. Yet the show’s staff quickly realized that no one cared, and now the show gives no explanation for its interviews. They’re just a device, with no narrative implications.
Next up, we have How I Met Your Mother (which isn’t a documentary narrative, but a high-concept framing device). You would think that the explicit, vocal pleas by fans for the identity of the mother to be revealed would indicate that the narrative framing device is still vital to the show’s consumption. Yet you would be wrong, because try to find just one of those same fans that won’t admit that no matter how the mother is revealed, it will be a massive disappointment.
Yes, in both of these examples, the audience is more interested at the art on the canvas than the frame around it, and really, for the most part, that’s the way it should be. Which brings me to my timely and sneaky point of this entire article: Community, which appears to have finally faced its ratings demons.
When talking of shows unafraid to go against the status quo, Community is on the short list. It’s a very inconsistent show, and at its worst it can be an incredibly mediocre single-cam. But at its best, Community flies in the face of convention, packing clever writing and dynamic characters into elaborate homages and fringe storytelling techniques. While the aforementioned recent trend is to use convenient narrative frameworks to simply change the pace of typical sitcom fare, Community does the opposite, tackling the most obtrusive, unique storytelling aesthetics, and still succeeding.
Tonight’s episode, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” was a perfect example of why the show is so successful yet also so alienating - instead of just using the device to set up quick jokes, the episode was unabashedly centered on documentary filmmaking techniques and values. Instead of the watered down form growing in prevalence, the episode showed how documentaries aren’t just a device, but an entire perspective.
"Some flies are too awesome for the wall" - Abed
Community is that awesome fly.