'Modern Family': Hank Stuever discusses mockumentary TV

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

When he looks at the camera and expounds on his real estate prowess, or describes his delicate approach to marital diplomacy, to whom is "Modern Family's" Phil Dunphy talking?

And who is on the other end of the camera when Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, Jim and Pam Halpert, and the other employees of Dunder Mifflin confess their innermost thoughts on "The Office"? And what sort of fictional camera crew, making what sort of film, would find itself limitlessly interested in one Leslie Knope of the Pawnee, Ind., "Parks and Recreation" department?

Because these TV comedies are doing their jobs right, we as viewers mostly don't care to think it through. This is what defines mockumentary, a genius and altogether contemporary form of satire. The seeming authenticity of single-camera action combines with the deadpan extrapolation when characters answer one-on-one interview questions about what has just occurred.

Though it had been used by humorists and filmmakers for many years, mockumentary comports nicely with the hyper-sardonic wit of the Internet era. There are countless online faux-documentary comedy bits at Funny or Die and other Web sites. Many of us first fell for mockumentary with director Rob Reiner's 1984 film "This Is Spinal Tap." Then came Christopher Guest's 1996 ensemble comedy "Waiting for Guffman" (and follow-ups, such as "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind"). As the British version of "The Office" was making a crossover, mockumentary TV was perhaps best mastered in the underrated 2005 HBO series "The Comeback," in which Lisa Kudrow played a sitcom actress who allows a camera crew to follow her through a professional nadir.

The format remains funny because it seems just real enough. When they're looking right into the camera, the characters seem to be talking to us, the audience, their confidants -- which is flattering in a way. It's like irony frosting on an irony cake.

That said, the form has wavered. The chronic mediocrity of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and a palpable onset of boredom at "The Office" have me questioning mockumentary's many shortcomings. Especially when those two shows are matched against the soaring brilliance of ABC's "Modern Family," which is easily the best show of the 2009-10 season.

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Thinking about it too much (and watching these shows too much) recently steered me in an epistemological direction. That fourth wall was partly ours, in the way that a fence can also belong to your neighbor. Then they tore it down.

Who, I wonder, are the mockumen-tarians? By now, the imaginary, unseen film crew tasked with completing a documentary about an average American workplace ("The Office") has amassed five full years' worth of footage.

What do "they" intend to "do" with it all? No one in "The Office" ever asks when the project will conclude. If it's to be a reality TV show, why has it never aired? If it's a film project, where does the unlimited funding come from? (That's one heck of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur grant.)

All we know -- or presume to know -- is that a film crew follows Dunder Miffliners around each and every workday with unheard-of journalistic access, to the point where the crew was even at that roadside gas station when Jim proposed to Pam. This access persists even as the company was taken over this season by Sabre Corp., which makes computer printers and is run by a steely Floridian (Kathy Bates). She's a type of woman who seems disinclined to open up her business to a documentary crew.

Only rarely do the characters ever interact with their ever-present observers. Jim and Pam (and sometimes Oscar, the gay accountant) are most frequently the only ones who ever glance with pleading eyes at what we believe to be the mockumentarian camera crew, in a new way of breaking what used to be the fourth wall. They are acknowledging the full absurdity of the world around them to a sympathetic watcher.

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