Quick! Before reading the rest of this post, think about each of the genres and decide which one you think doesn’t belong.
Here’s my answer: They all belong.
At first glance, they all share similar aesthetic and textual traits – handheld camera work, the impression of spontaneity, insider access or “fly-on-the-wall” perspectives – but their relationship is more complex than this. Still, most viewers would be reluctant to compare these three genres.
Reality TV is perceived, and rightly so, as sensational, exhibitionist, and low-brow; it’s pure entertainment. In the minds of most viewers, documentaries should be the exact opposite – educational, informative, elitist, serious. They should enrich your understanding of a particular person or subject. As works of fiction, mockumentaries seem to not belong in this conversation at all. But I think that these three genres are related, not disparate members of the media family, but actually close cousins that all fall on the same spectrum.
So how exactly are these genres connected? Mainly through their aesthetic qualities, a few of which I detailed at the start of this post. The documentary style, which is certainly the oldest of the three, is designed to give the director freedom of movement and intimate access to her subjects. For these reasons, it is also a format that fits the purposes of reality TV, although the appropriation of the style is more out of necessity than homage.
Mockumentaries, on the other hand, purposefully draw from the documentary aesthetic for tonal and textual reasons. Mockumentaries also share a major quality with reality TV – the creation of a false sense of reality. Both are meant to give off the air of being unscripted, but in actuality, they engage in varying degrees (depending on the genre and the specific program) of scripted drama.
By borrowing aesthetic and textual qualities from the others, each of the genres intentionally or inadvertently invokes some of the cultural connotations of the other formats. Like many familial relationships, it could be said that the connection between reality TV and documentaries is unwanted. To be mistaken for the other hurts both of them. If reality TV, whose intended viewers want an entertaining, melodramatic program, was confused for a documentary, its target audience wouldn’t tune in and it would tank. The same goes for documentaries. If mistaken for a sensationalistic program, the documentary would lose all of it’s social weight and credibility.
Mockumentaries, on the other hand, rely on being compared to documentaries. By calling to the viewer’s mind the cultural connotations of a documentary – educational, ethical, engaging, high-minded – mockumentaries are able to create their own brand of satire by contrasting these serious and often elitist qualities with an absurd subject matter. Think Best In Show or any of Christopher Guest’s other films.
But there are plenty of mockumentaries whose intent is not satire or humor. Oren Pelis’ Paranormal Activity and The River come to mind. They leverage a documentary format to lend added weight and plausibility to their supernatural stories.
In “I Think We Need A New Name For It”, a chapter in Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, co-author Susan Murray engages in a discursive analysis of documentaries and reality TV. In other words, she doesn’t attempt to reach an absolute conclusion about or a proper definition of each genre, but rather explores the way they are culturally received and interpreted. She leads the reader through a quick but interesting analysis of the genres, particularly in relation to their “social weight” – is the program pure entertainment (low social weight) or is it engaging viewers and exposing them to important political or cultural issues (high social weight)? Again, it all comes back to a spectrum.
The reality TV and mockumentary genres have both evolved to the point where they have developed their own aesthetic signifiers, so actually confusing them with each other or with documentaries is highly unlikely. On the page, their similarities are striking, but on the screen their differences are distinctive. I think this is largely why they are rarely thought of as related. Next time you catch the Jersey Shore, An Inconvenient Truth, or an episode of The River, reflect on how you’re engaging with the program and how it might play as one of it’s close cousins.