Which One Of These Is Not Like The Others: Reality TV, Documentaries, Mockumentaries

Quick! Before reading the rest of this post, think about each of the genres and decide which one you think doesn’t belong.

Got it?


Here’s my answer: They all belong.

Here’s why:

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.

In Media Res: Fairy Tales and the Sophisticated Viewer

This week is fairy tale week over at In Media Res, a forum for online scholarship experimenting with multimedia collaboration and intellectual discussion. Basically, it’s awesome. They’re always really smart people writing about all sorts of cool ways media, technology, and culture intersect and interact.

This week, I’m luckily enough to be one of them!

My post “Fairy Tales and the Sophisticated Viewer” kicks off In Media Res‘ fairy tale themed week:

Traditional fairy tale narratives are not made for today’s TV. Among a steady increase of smart, narratively complex shows that utilize attributes of the televisual medium, such as seriality and reflexivity, to their fullest, the conventional fairy tale falls flat. Their structures are too linear, too episodic, their worlds too limited, and their characters too static. At the very least, fairy tales’ self-contained stories and one dimensional protagonists would have to be altered to work for TV.  But savvy contemporary TV audiences that embrace, and to a certain extent, expect complicated narratives would yawn at a simple retrofitting of the tales. More significant changes on a narrative and structural level are required to entertain today’s sophisticated viewers.

Please go check it out!

If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?

Spoiler: No one ruined TV, but there are lot of contemporary trends that had to start somewhere, and I still think one of them started with Abrams.

If you spend any time on the internet reading about TV (or if you just read my blog – hi mom!), then you know that Ryan McGee’s piece on televisual structure “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode” is receiving lots of attention, and not just from the likes of amateur critics like me. Important thinkers are weighing in, including Jason Mittell, one of my favorite media scholars.

Mittell’s response “No, The Sopranos Didn’t Ruin Television” is, as usual, a well thought out rebuttal. Mittell takes issue with McGee’s selection of The Sopranos as the impetus for novelistic television and suggests The Wire as a much better choice. More interesting, in my opinion, is Mittell’s assertion that many of the shows McGee cites as struggling with novelistic structure are actually plagued by much larger problems, including poor character development or bad production management.

This made me realize that perhaps I needed to re-frame my earlier post “Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model“. For example, I cited Terra Nova as an abject failure of the Abram’s model. While I still believe that it failed on a structural level, it’s important to recognize that there were other, potentially bigger, problems. Two spring to mind: too many executive producers and unlikable/unsympathetic characters. Would I have enjoyed watching the show more, despite its narrative failings, if the characters had been better? Absolutely. I would watch awesome characters battle dinosaurs sans plot any day.*

(*This reminds me of my earlier posts on New Girl. I love the characters of that show so much that I’m completely unfazed by its lack of plot. The rest of the critics seem to disagree with me.)

Another thing that Mittell said made me question my Abrams model:

…failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short.

Isn’t that exactly what I was doing? Blaming Abrams for making successful shows that others with less talent tried to imitate and couldn’t? Sort of.

First, I don’t exactly hold J.J. Abrams responsible for the sins of those who have come after him, but I do think that his continued production of shows that build off of a Lostian format in a not entirely sound way only serves to exacerbate the problem.**

(**As a reader pointed out after my first piece, a great exception here is Fringe.)

But what does Mittell mean by “successful innovators”? Narratively sound and satisfying? Popular? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m going to bet on the former. After all, lots of narratively superb shows fail (I miss you, Terriers). But the larger question is was Abrams “successful” with Lost? I would argue that he wasn’t. The narrative petered out in the end,throwing wild and random developments at the audience until it was clear that the writers were as lost as we were. While successful at propagating the Lost mythological structure due to the show’s enormous popularity, Abrams was not a “successful innovator” in the way that Mittell intends the term.

So, can we still cite Abrams and Lost as the beginning for the current trend of shows that attempt but  fail to balance a larger mythology with weekly episodic installments? I think so.

Novelistic Television

Ryan McGee, fellow Boston freelancer and TV thinker, just posted an article over at the A.V. Club that asks a lot of the same questions I posed in my previous piece on unsatisfying TV. But we examined the issue from opposite sides. I was considering shows that try to establish a mythology while balancing an episodic feeling on network TV and McGee is concerned with the decline of such episodic inclinations on premium channels:

HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself.  Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel.

It’s a great piece. I recommend checking it out: “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode

Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model

I Want To Believe

(After reading, check out my follow up post: “If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?“)

It all started, like so many televisual things do, with The X-Files. The supernatural horror show was the first to pioneer the use of an intricate, series-spanning mythology in prime time television.

It was ambitious. Prior to the 1980’s, TV plots were all episodic, neatly wrapped up by the end of the 30 minute time block. In the ’80s, some shows began experimenting with seriality, creating stories that arced over several episodes. But the concept of creating season long, or as it turned out in the case of The X-Files, a nine season long narrative, was unheard of.

It was risky. A complex serial storyline makes it much harder for new viewers to tune in, and in a format where viewership is perhaps the most important factor, it’s a big gamble. Like the “art television” (Twin Peaks) that it took many of it’s cues from, The X-Files brought exclusivity to TV.

For the viewers that had been watching since the pilot, what would they think of this new type of storytelling? Would they like it? More importantly, would they understand it? Chris Carter and gang thought so. The best shows, the best works of art for that matter, are always the ones that don’t underestimate their audience.

But, it was messy. If you’ve watched the entirety of The X-Files,  you know what I mean. The mythology is rambling, sometimes ponderous, sometimes thrilling, sometimes elusory, and in the end, not really cohesive. But it was the first to undertake an open narrative in such scale and complexity, so I think it’s allowed a few mistakes.

Despite The X-Files’ many missteps, J.J. Abrams still owes a lot to Chris Carter and the writers of the series. Building off of Carter’s work, Abrams launched such hit shows as Alias and Lost. However, Abrams didn’t address the issues of narrative cohesion that plagued The X-Files, so each of his shows reached similarly unsatisfying endings.

I’m Lost…

If The X-Files pioneered this style, why am I calling this the J.J. Abrams model rather than the Chris Carter model?

Because Carter’s only hit (regrettably) has been The X-Files, whereas Abrams has created, written, or produced more shows than possibly any human being ever (hyperbole, but it goes without saying that he is one of the most prolific creators of TV today). While The X-Files did it first, Lost made it the current popular standard.

The success of Abrams’ shows, like Lost, early on eclipsed their dissatisfying ends and encouraged others, who might not be as capable as Abrams, to reproduce this complex narrative style. The result has been a slew of poorly constructed television that promises exciting twists and turns but ends up spinning out of control, offering up developments that are each more arbitrary and unlikely than the last or leaving important aspects unresolved.

Terra Nova is a good example of a Lostian format gone horribly wrong. The plots were poorly conceived or poorly executed (often times both), and the characters were one dimensional. Structurally, the show was unable to balance its “Monster of the Week” episodes with the larger mythology, which left the first season feeling like it had failed to create a mythology or self-contained storylines. All of this led to a very unsatisfying, and often maddening, viewing experience. Trust me. I watched and wrote about every episode. No, I did not receive hazard pay.

An American Horror Story 

Is there a solution to this increasingly frightening situation facing American TV today? I think so, and it starts with the quote made famous by Johnny Cash, or Albert Pennyworth, or possibly Kenny Rogers: know your limitations. It’s better to make an entertaining, tightly knit narrative than to create an inconsistent one with random or inconsequential plot twists in every episode. Try something new. Pushing the boundaries of any medium is the best way to find growth, but in an era where TV is struggling for relevancy in many ways, taking risks isn’t encouraged. But when it works, it really works.

Take, for example, American Horror Story, one of the biggest hits of the n 2011 Fall season. In an earlier post, I expressed concern that the show was following the J.J. Abrams model of leaping into the narrative before looking, and therefore it was was certainly headed for an unsatisfying conclusion. But, I was wrong. Creators Falchuk and Murphy recognized that AHS’ format was untenable to sustain over several seasons, so they decided to take a risk and conclude the current plot by the end of the first season and start over in season two with a whole new storyline. Whether this will pay off audience-wise remains to be seen, but I think it will certainly keep the show entertaining and interesting far longer than if they had tried to force the narrative onto subsequent seasons.

With Abrams producing several new shows this season (Alcatraz and Person of Interest) and another one of his projects, Revolution, having just been picked up by NBC, I hope we’ll see some evidence of learning from past mistakes. I’m not holding my breath on that, though. At least we have another season of Arrested Development, the pinnacle of narrative control, to look forward to.

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