By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; E01
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.
I have entertained the idea that "The Office" is a reality show in the making, and that when it comes time for the editors and producers to "assemble" the "footage," they will cut it in a way that betrays Jim and Pam as snarky and needlessly cruel, and makes Michael, Dwight and other Dunder Mifflin employees appear smart and competent.
Although some loyal viewers insist that "Parks and Recreation" has improved this season, I still find it to be a dreary and cynical attempt to photocopy the success of "The Office." Why that happened is anybody's guess: Maybe lead actor Amy Poehler's talent is squandered on a character who isn't strange enough.
If "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" wish to rejuvenate themselves, they would do well to mimic a key innovation of Kudrow's "Comeback" series.
There, Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) was continually interacting (and interfering) with the film crew and the "show's" producer. Valerie eventually watches the resulting reality show, and sees how she's been edited into a pathetic (if accurate) version of herself.
"Parks and Recreation" would especially benefit from this new layer: Poehler's Knope needs to suffer the pain of journalistic betrayal, seeing herself and her bureaucratic milieu laid bare. We need to watch her watching us watch her. (Follow that?)
* * *
What sort of project has the extended family of Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) signed up for, thus creating the premise for "Modern Family"?
Could what we're seeing be the making of a film or reality show about family relationships and conflict? Is it a serious social study, harking back to the tumultuous Loud family of PBS's seminal documentary series "An American Family" back in the 1970s? Or is it a project destined to run on cheap cable? (What, with no "little people" making cupcakes?)
Of course, these questions test the limitations of the form. Anyone who's ever studied or participated in actual documentary filmmaking can point out hundreds of examples of "ungettable" moments in "The Office," "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family" -- places where cameras (and crews) miraculously gain access to both sides of a locked door, so to speak, and other lapses in verisimilitude.
The improv styles in these shows are masterfully handled, since mockumentaries are usually cast from an alumni directory of the Groundlings, Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade and other theatrical comedy incubators. But a real documentarian can immediately see the precise stage blocking of mockumentary; the moments we find most funny and spontaneous, he will detect as finely honed script writing.
Try reading snippets of a teleplay of a "Modern Family" episode, as text on screen. The writing and pace are crisp, and yet you'll barely crack a smile. It's like reading a lukewarm sitcom pilot.
But then watch the same scene in an actual episode, and you may quake with laughter. The show soars on the looseness that mockumentary provides, and the strengths of a cast led by Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy -- a stereotypical doofus dad done with surprisingly new energy, who boasts of having once attended trapeze school and refers to his fists as the Captain and Tennille.
"One day I'm going to be a grandfather," Phil announces at a family barbecue, "and then everybody better hide their meat." (Not so funny in type, is it?) When the iPad is released, on his birthday, Phil confides to the camera: "It's like Steve Jobs and God got together to say, 'We love you, Phil!' "
Fans of the show fuss and titter and Twitter and reenact (or send links to) each episode's best moments. It's one of those half-hour comedies that you'd happily watch for another half-hour. It always feels too short, which means it's just enough.
* * *
There was a recent episode of "The Office" where I had an epiphany. It was in the way the characters were once again being "interviewed" one-on-one by a never-seen interlocutor. There is no documentary here. There is no faux reality show. There is no reason the cameras are at Dunder Mifflin, or in the Pawnee municipal building, or in the Pritchett families' kitchens and living rooms.
There are no cameras.
Instead, these characters are talking to (and being observed by) God, or at least the vaguest hint of a god. They're doing what all modern people have learned to do: They are having internal monologues. They are sensing a camera's presence.
In a way, aren't we all pretending to appear in our own reality show? In a medium so secular as network television, could a mockumentary be seen an interpretation on supernatural omniscience? (And does that mean the audience watches from heaven?)
Dwight Schrute's schemes are really conversations with the Devil. Jim Halpert's sideways winks at the camera are a form of acknowledging his maker. Leslie Knope and Michael Scott struggle with self-anointed sainthood.
And "Modern Family," for now, is all that is holy.
Modern Family (season finale) airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.
Parks and Recreation (season finale) airs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC.
The Office (season finale) airs at 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC.