Thursday, September 30, 2010

Faux Shows

I want to like Modern Family, I really do. But I can't get past the show's flawed conceit–sometimes we see scenes where the characters clearly do not know they are being filmed, and other times the characters are aware of, and react to, the cameras. So what is Modern Family supposed to be? Is it a single-camera sitcom, like 30 Rock, or a mockumentary, like The Comeback? It can be one or the other…but it can’t be both.

If the creators want us to believe we’re watching a documentary on the ‘modern family’ they have to be consistent with the parameters of that concept. They want to have a faux-reality show, with characters glancing at the cameras and speaking directly to the viewer in testimonials, but they also give us private moments between characters that would never be shot with a camera crew present. Often, the action is shot from multiple angles (which means there are multiple cameramen), yet we never see any crew carrying cameras. If it’s a mockumentary, we should probably get a glimpse of the camera crew in the background here and there.

On the other hand, if we’re supposed to view it as a single-camera comedy, then they can’t repeatedly have the characters acknowledging the camera. (And while we’re on the subject, when they give us those moments in which character A says something dopey and character B raises his eyebrows and gives us a knowing look…isn’t this essentially the same joke repeated over and over?)

The above examples are the same reasons I find fault with The Office. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but for what? A film? A reality show? If it’s a film, what kind of a budget do the filmmakers have that they can shoot footage for years on end? And what’s the supposed concept of this supposed film, beyond shooting office-worker buffoons who don’t realize they’re buffoons? If it’s supposed to be a reality show, then why aren’t the characters famous yet, as they would be if they were really being filmed for a reality show? Wouldn’t it be more interesting (for any of these type of shows–The Office, Parks & Recreation, or Modern Family) if the first season was shot with the characters being unknowns, and the second season depicted them as the famous, tabloid-photographed, gossiped-about personalities they’ve become? Because isn’t that really what happens to the people on reality shows like Real Housewives and Jersey Shore?

The genius, short-lived Comeback, which utilized B-roll footage and got the director and camera crew involved with the action, is the best example of a mockumentary series done right. Conversely, 30 Rock and Arrested Development chose to film in a single-camera style with a documentary 'feel', but the characters do not know they are being filmed. 

Modern Family and the other current faux-doc comedies want to have it both ways, and in the process reveal their creative laziness.


  1. This kind of argument often comes up in the literary world. Is it a mystery or a romance novel? Sure it has elements of both, but it has to be one or the other - because otherwise COSTCO won't carry it given there's no hybrid slots to fill. I say, why can't it just be a good read? I don't watch MODERN FAMILY because it's a mockumentary or a single-camera comedy. I watch it because it's funny. [I do not watch THE OFFICE because personally I don't find it funny - and wouldn't no matter if it were mocku, single-cam, or in 3D.] I find MF a case study in the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts. Could MF take baby steps to perfect its style? Sure, as every show could. Ultimately, however, if the series has to be categorized, maybe we all could call it a break-out sitcom. Given its ratings alone, that, at least, is indisputable.

  2. I think for television you DO have to choose one way or the other. Not necessarily to make a show 'sellable' but because television is a unique medium in that the stories are 'living'. The show has to be consistent week to week, and has to define itself clearly.

    For example, Mad Men has been a fantastic drama for three years. This year, the character Mrs. Blankenship has added a huge amount of comic relief. Every time she had a line, it was funny. That's OK, because a drama is allowed to have elements of humor. But what if they added a laugh track after each of her lines? It would be jarring, and completely out of place. Mad Men is not a sitcom. That's what I mean by MF having to decide what kind of show it is. To me, it's jarring whenever the characters acknowledge the camera because it takes me out of the story, because I'm reminded that it's a supposed documentary...except that they won't commit to the 'supposed documentary' angle. To me, this is highly frustrating and makes the show unwatchable.

    I'm all for hybrids, but only if they make sense. And MF doesn't make sense. I remember when the first 'dramedy' "The Days & Nights of Molly Dodd" came out, people HATED it because they'd never seen anything like it before. The audience couldn't figure out how to watch it--it was a half hour like a sitcom, but had no laugh track, and it was funny but sometimes...not funny. It took years until people accepted the dramedy as a genre, and now they're pretty standard. [BTW, I loved Molly Dodd!]

    So maybe this "Filmed Documentary-Style But Not Admitting It" kind of comedy is just something I'll have to get used to. Maybe in a few years all the comedies will be shot like this. But I hope not.