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.

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?

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