For all their quirks and idiosyncrasies, the most acclaimed network sitcoms of the past decade all share one peculiar and rarely-examined component – that of the “fake” documentary crew. While Modern Family, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Arrested Development are all praised for departing from convention, the fact is they all rely very heavily on an overused concept.
By any account, the heavy-handed and derivative placement of multiple shows in the “faux-documentary” construct should elicit the ire of TV snobs who claim to prize innovation above all else, but that just hasn’t happened. Despite the fact that The Office (UK) and Arrested Development introduced this narrative device almost a decade ago, its use continues to not only evade the scorn of critics, but is often the explicit reason for their praise. While lauded network sitcoms have become few and far between, it’s difficult to find a recent example that doesn’t feature confessionals and a single, shaky-camera approach.
Remarkably, this approach turns out to be a win-win, as the viewer forgoes the latter conceit, refusing to believe they’re not “in the moment” while still enjoying all the conventions of the faux-doc style. These conventions include the breaking of the fourth wall in testimonials and the ability to film characters without them “knowing it,” which is unheard of in the traditional three-camera setup. (Note the confessional approach doesn’t occur in’Arrested Development‘, but rather is supplanted by cutaways to newspapers, websites, and security videos. No TV show used more third-party sources than ‘AD‘.)
Characters in a traditional sitcom structure (say, ‘Wings’ or ‘Cheers‘) may never have acknowledged the camera, but private moments also did not exist, which is a change that cannot be underestimated. The level of intimacy has been raised exponentially with the faux-doc style.
While The Office certainly plays to the documentary style more than the other shows, with nods and appeals to the camera operators, you still are left with the feeling that you’re watching something unfold as it happens rather than watching something that was recorded two weeks prior, then assembled in some fictional documentary post-production house. This dilemma was skirted entirely in the more recent Better Off Ted, which took all the elements of the documentary approach, but had Ted address the camera mid-scene rather than in a documentary-style cutaway. The Office is still on the air while Better Off Ted is not, so draw your own conclusions
This structure gives us the best of both worlds. It lets the viewer feel like a voyeur in a more realistic setting than those of three-camera sitcoms such as Friends and Two and a Half Men, while still spoon-feeding jokes, set-ups, and reaction shots (albeit with completely different prompts than they are used to). As such, it’s no coincidence that shows with the faux-doc format don’t have laugh tracks. The audience is watching and deciding for themselves what’s funny and what isn’t.
Despite the way these audiences feel in the faux-doc premise, the testimonial and confessional scenes actually entail a wildly unapologetic direct delivery of jokes. The characters are breaking the fourth wall to speak, completely flying in the face of any “discovery” the audience feels they have made. It’s a very strange balancing act; one I can’t explain without a better (any) understanding of the human mind. We decide that these shows make us feel smarter, even though they really don’t. These shows are tricking us, and not only do we not feel duped, but we clamor for more.
The producers and cast deliver us jokes in a more direct fashion than shows that are maligned as heavy-handed and cheap (like King of Queens), but we get to feel even better about ourselves for thinking we are pulling the humor from the situation rather than taking what we are given.
Now, is this due to the fact that the writing on these shows is better than on King of Queens? Certainly the writing IS better, but that’s not what makes us feel smarter. Simply and ineloquently put, these shows make us feel smarter because the structure of the narrative makes us FEEL smarter. Good writing follows because a good writer would (I pray) rather write for a show without a laugh track. Thus, the shows establish a nice little cycle of success. The format makes jaded audiences feel smarter, and coincidentally, the format also lends itself to better writing. So the audience gets further rewarded with better writing, which ACTUALLY makes them smarter.
But they won’t feel smarter forever. Much as the three-camera approach was an innovation around the time of I Love Lucy, it wore off way down the line. The faux-doc style also has a very finite half-life, as the context is so specific that it is likely to get co-opted quickly (though for some reason it hasn’t yet) by unfunny, trite shows which will likely ruin the format for everyone involved. The audience will feel less smart because you can’t feel smart when you’re watching According to Jim no matter how it’s presented, and sitcoms will be forced to look for another structure.
But until then, let’s pretend Leslie Knope, the whole gang from Modern Family, and Dwight Schrute are just living their lives, and we are a fly on the wall, watching it happen. Except of course when they look directly at us to tell us a joke.