Since the first television broadcast in the late twenties, it is pretty safe to say that television has undergone very significant changes. While the history of television would make for a very intriguing article, that is not the central topic for this week. No, instead this week’s topic will focus on the mockumentary genre by examining how The Office used the genre to seep into American pop culture.
For those of you that are not aware, a mockumentary is just what it sounds like, it is a mock documentary. In the film Adaptation, the fictionalized Charlie Kaufman played by Nicolas Cage argues there has not been a new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary with his film The Clowns in 1970. However others argue Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night were precursors to the genre. With that being said, it was not until 1984 with the release of This is Spinal Tap that the mockumentary became a mainstream genre characterized by its documentary like cinematography and “confessionals” were characters in the story would speak directly into the camera and reveal their inner most thoughts.
While this style of storytelling definitely had an impact on the film landscape, it would not be until the early 2000’s until television allowed the full potential of the mockumentary to be realized. One of the first shows that really was able to capitalize on the advantages the mockumentary style of storytelling provided was the American version of The Office. Through the use of techniques only found within the mockumentary genre the writers of the show were able to showcase their characters very personable ways that is extremely difficult, if possible, to do with traditional storytelling. One of the reasons that The Office was able to become as successful as it was is due in large part to the plethora of developed characters that allowed audiences to not have to settle for the three or four main characters traditional sitcoms usually have, and instead gave them the opportunity to pick from a wide cast that each was more different than the last. While it seems like this option is something that most shows should have instead of forcing the audience to relate to the same four cookie cutter characters, with the structure of traditional television it’s just not possible to shoehorn in dozens of characters into a half hour episode. The reason The Office is able to is because of its use of confessionals. As previously mentioned, confessionals are similar to soliloquies in plays where in a sense the character in the story simply tells the audience how they feel, now in The Office this is such a valued mechanic because it allows the writers to give each supporting character in the show a place to show off who they are in a quick several second interval instead of having to use the several minute long scenes other television shows have to rely on to highlight a characters attributes. In fact, these moments are even more concentrated in their character development as the characters are outright able to express exactly how they feel limiting any confusion that may occur as a result of the audience having to wonder what a character is thinking when a specific event occurs.
Even though The Office had a wide range of characters over the course of its nine seasons, it was always clear as to who the main characters were even if they did shuffle in and out of the lime light from time to time. Just like the supporting cast, the main characters in the show also received the heightened characterization as a result of confessionals. By having each character easily share the thoughts and beliefs that they were feeling during a certain moment the audience was able to build a closer bond with the character as they saw them in a more personal way then an audience would typically see a character. As a result over the years, as the show went on, the audience began to personally care about each character and legitimately wanted them to be happy. This allowed the show to transcend its comedic atmosphere at times because once the audience had personal interest invested in the characters it did not take a large time to build up drama that the audience would care about.
In the years that followed The Office, the mockumentary style sitcom was adopted across several networks creating other successful shows such as Parks and Recreation and Modern Family which were praised for a lot of the same reasons as The Office. While it seems like the idea of a new genre coming around anytime soon is unlikely, all it really takes is someone with a good idea to open the gates for a new type of storytelling.
Thank you for visiting Celluloid Cinema, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.