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Saturday, 5 of December of 2020

“You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya, honey!”: In Defense of the Conventional Sitcom

I’m not a fan of the mockumentary sitcom. It’s become a barrier of entry for me with shows like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. Indeed, I think it’s a crutch that sitcoms are starting to rely on, much to their detriment. I was going to let my dislike of the format speak through my silence on the shows.

But then Matthew Gilbert over at the Boston Globe had to go and poke the bear. Gilbert extolls the format for providing the “still-needed alternative for the sitcom genre as a whole” and for shows that use the format as the “essential weapons in the battle against sitcom predictability.” And he pays the shows that use the format the ultimate compliment by declaring them “anti-sitcoms.”

At this point, I feel it’s best to crank the laugh track dial up to 11.

For Gilbert, it’s the aesthetics of the mockumentary format that provides salvation for the sitcom:

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.

This is the crux of the first half of Gilbert’s piece: the mockumentary format privileges that “real-life atmosphere.” Sadly, the phrase “real-life” is always a sticky thing to bring up, and poorly serves Gilbert’s argument. None of the shows Gilbert highlights, Parks and RecreationModern Family, and The Office, lend themselves to being “real-life”-like. Would any public service employee devote themselves so completely to catching statue vandalizers on Halloween? What parent would ask their son to shoot his sister with a BB gun?

Of course, I’m being semantical. The qualifier in Gilbert’s sentence is, of course, “atmosphere.” But even this doesn’t hold up well. As David Loehr noted in his wonderful critique of Modern Family, that show doesn’t handle the mockumentary atmosphere well at all:

The documentary angle of the show simply does not work. It is not organic to the situation, it is not remarked upon unless it’s convenient to the moment, it is not well-thought out. The documentary cameras just happen to catch all the information/exposition they need, whether cameras would be in the situation or not. They must be some talented, well nigh invisible cameramen to be able to capture some of the scenes they’ve shown us.

In this case, the real-life-ness of the show is undermined by the show’s poor use of the format. I’d add that the show’s situations rarely feel real life-like (as Loehr notes as well), ranging from anytime Phil decides to be a parent (the Michael Scott of fathers) to Manny’s biological dad showing up for an episode. The former is an on-going gag while the latter is a blatant, largely unmotivated, guest star spot, a favorite of the weezy conventional sitcom. Even the show’s structure, like in the episode “Fizbo,” isn’t very docu-savvy due to its “6 hours ago” unspooling of the birthday party farce. The “Fizbo” episode, is equally hamstrung by the clear, expected narrative path it follows, lacking the supposed spontaneity of the format.

On the flip side of not using the format well, I’d argue that The Office has outplayed the format’s usefulness. What documentary crew needs five years of footage (or needs to attend a wedding or an upcoming childbirth)? The simple, real-life atmosphere answer is none. The recent clip show episode provides the catch-22 the show finds itself in. On the one hand, it makes no sense for a show in the mockumentary format to do a clip show episode. On the other hand, showing the documentary crew at the editing bay, attempting to put the footage together at the editing bay, while funny, would’ve called attention to the fact that there is a crew trying to make a larger project outside of the weekly show. In either case, the artifice of the format is exposed, damaging the real-life atmosphere that Gilbert prizes.

As for the idea that the cameras are “zooming in and out without an obvious rhythm” within their shows, is patently false. Gilbert inadvertently acknowledges this with the following description:

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.

The problem is that April’s sullen glare is center stage. The camera will zoom to that sullen glare at any chance (just as it will go to Jim’s smirk). Yes, it goes unnoticed by the other show’s other characters, but not by “documentary cameras”, who use the glare in much the same way that the same glare could be used to in the conventional sitcom: to punctuate the joke, to get a bigger laugh. The mockumentary’s the timing, acting style, and choreography have become as stock as that of the conventional sitcom.

The latter portion of Gilbert’s valorization of the format deals with why the format is good for us as reality television viewers:

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.

Of course we should be aware about the trappings of fact presented by reality shows, but at this point I think audiences can grasp fairly well the conventions of a style in reality show. But the mockumentary format engages in a charade as well. Within fictional narratives, like sitcoms, the aim is to create a realistic diegesis, one that is recognizable to an audience. But the mockumentary format, as Gilbert extols, creates that “real-life” diegesis, that can’t be supported by the events depicted within them (just like the events in reality shows tend to ring as manufactured). The conventional sitcom doesn’t have to worry about this “real-life” diegesis because it need only be real-life enough for us to recognize it and enjoy it.

And what, exactly, is wrong with the conventional sitcom? Gilbert never says, except that it relies on “broad one-liners and rigid staging”, which are apparently bad things. How they’re bad, I’m not sure since Gilbert doesn’t enumerate that. To that end, while I don’t find The Big Bang Theory to be funny, the format isn’t the problem, the writing and the characters are the problem. The same applies to Two and Half Men. How I Met Your Mother uses the conventions of the traditional sitcom, while still engaging in genre gymnastics with cutaway jokes, framing devices, and allowing the characters to laugh at their own jokes (something nearly all sitcoms, even the mockumentary ones, tend to avoid at all costs: Chandler is funny to us, but never to any of the other Friends).

There is, as Scrubs notes in its send-up of the conventional sitcom, ultimately something comforting about those conventional sitcoms at the end of the day. Cheers is still remarkably funny, nearly 20 years later. All in the Family remains smart (and humorous) in its satire, and I doubt that anyone wouldn’t laugh at Lucy getting drunk on Vitameatavegamin. Admittedly, these shows have had time to age, but that these shows still air in reruns indicates not only their longevity, but that the format ultimately isn’t dictating the show’s success. Smart writing and acting is what makes a show work. No amount of formatting differences can make make up for that.

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