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!

How “Awake” Could Have A Shot At Surviving

Worst case scenario: Awake’s pilot is an amazing 45 minutes of television. Best case scenario: it’s the beginning of a show that has the potential to help redefine the form and function of network serial drama.

Awake’s premise is deceptively easy to explain: Detective Michael Britten and his family get in a car accident. After the crash, Britten’s reality is seemingly split into two worlds, one where only he and his wife survived, and another where only he and his son did. Awake juggles these two universes effortlessly, throwing up signposts, such as Britten’s color coded wrist bands, so the audience will know what reality he’s currently experiencing. Still, a question constantly plagues the viewer: what is real?

I hope Awake’s answer is “you’ll never know”. In a meeting with one of his therapists (Britten has two, one in each reality), Britten confesses that he has no desire to ever know what’s real if it means he has to lose one of his family members. This is one of a few lines in the pilot that suggests Awake might not be out to solve the mystery that underlies its narrative. Instead, Awake might ask us to simply accept Britten’s curious circumstances as part of the storyworld in the same way that we accept True Blood’s Bon Temps is full of vampires and werepanthers and that The River’s Amazon is permeated by magic. I think this approach, if taken, will help Awake keep its head above the ratings water.

As I’ve discussed in recent posts and as others have endlessly debated, the recent flood of mythology driven shows on network TV is a double-edged sword. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s also amazing, but in more of a train wreck kind of way. While Awake’s creator Kyle Killen  is clearly a smart guy (his other show about a man with a double life, Lone Star, was short-lived but outstanding), and would probably be capable of spinning out a complicated mythology, I’m hoping he’s chosen not to. Awake as a mythology-based show would be difficult to sustain. How long could they keep the mystery engaging without coming to a conclusion? Awake as a procedural with a twist, on the other hand, is much easier to maintain.

Much of the pilot is devoted to two cases that Britten is trying to solve, one in each reality. His access to both realities becomes a kind of gift, a fresher version of the psychic ability that pops up in many cop dramas, that allows him insight into each of the crimes. As shows like CSI and NCIS demonstrate, the procedural angle is much more accessible for most viewers, which could help Awake find an audience. This doesn’t mean Awake has to lose its edge or intelligence, though. I think those qualities are part of the show’s DNA and will shine all the brighter couched in a procedural, which allows for more room for character development than a complicated mythology that demands as much attention as the characters.

Luckily, Awake has a deep well of complicated characters, situations, and relationships to plumb. To me, a character driven show about what  happens to a family dynamic when that family is split into two realities sounds much more interesting than answering why Britten is or isn’t crazy. I hope Awake is strong enough to not listen to the fans that clamor for the mystery to be solved, and if it chooses to ignore them, I hope the fans will be smart enough to realize what a good choice it was.

Other thoughts

Awake’s pilot is still free to watch online here.

Britten’s son, Rex, is a nice change from the likes of Josh on Terra Nova. Rex  is still a goofy name, though.

Jason Isaacs is an outstanding actor (duh), and I’m excited to see him on the small screen not playing a bad guy.

I have a major girl crush on Laura Allen. Who doesn’t, though?

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

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