Why Fake Documentaries Work

Community‘s latest experiment was a more old-school type of experiment: doing an entire episode as a fake documentary. This was an opportunity to take  a couple of shots at shows that are all done that way, and how they use the format to provide quick exposition and wrap shows up quickly, but it was also a throwback to the many sitcoms that have chosen to do one episode as a documentary or reality show.

One thing that stood out is that director Joe Russo (interviewed with his director brother Anthony in the link above) did a really effective job of making the documentary format seem jarring again. We’re sort of used to shaky cameras and awkward angles by now, and the shows that do this every week try to make these things seem as smooth and un-noticeable as possible. That wouldn’t have worked for a change-of-pace episode, so in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” the camera was wobblier, the angles weirder. It was meant to make a familiar form seem unfamiliar and strange again.

The other thing the episode pointed up — apart from the ability of the mock-doc to bring us closer to the characters in a weird way — is that, even though it may help fuel a growing backlash against fake documentaries (I’ve noticed people turning against it, anyway), the gimmick “works” as Abed said near the end. One thing that a mock-documentary can do that most other sitcoms can’t is to cut directly from one funny bit to another without any setup, and without compromising the forward motion of the story.

Shows like 30 Rock do lots of cutaways, but nearly always to the past. A show that uses purely linear scenes, whether it’s Community or Big Bang Theory, has to find some way to get into a scene and then get out of it; most of the funny bits have to be set up to some extent. What the Office format can do is cut away to the future: cut from the event to someone commenting on it a few minutes later, then back to the event. And thus we got the best bit in the episode, Troy meeting LeVar Burton, followed by a cut to Troy freaking out about blowing it, and then back to Troy’s reaction to meeting his hero.


That’s similar to reality TV, of course — reality shows, and writer-producers trying to do some of what they do, are largely the reason the mock-doc caught on. One insult Abed could have used but didn’t is that the documentary is perfect for limited attention spans: if the viewer may get bored following a scene, just throw in something else.

This next thing isn’t particularly related to the Community episode, but I might as well mention it here: another thing about the phony documentary format is that it may be the ideal format for the era of short running times. A sitcom with only 20 minutes per episode will always have to do a lot of cutting. When the show deals in complete, long scenes, that’s murder; it can be done, and is, but cutting without losing the shape of a scene can be extremely hard.

With the documentary/reality approach, there are more ways to edit down a scene. They’ll cover an internal cut with a talking head or insert; they can take a little snippet of a deleted scene and use it with a voice-over. And because the viewer subconsciously expects the scenes to be choppy, the  producers don’t have to worry about it. Not all mock-docs do this just because they can — Parks & Recreation seems to have come to depend more on complete scenes, because it’s developed a style that’s a bit more traditional sitcom than The Office and requires some set-pieces to play out longer. But it does have the ability to use the basics of the documentary format to help with the editing and storytelling.

Back to Community, one thing the episode and the Russo Brothers interview touches on is the emergence of Pierce (Chevy Chase) as an out-and-out villain. Jace Lacob, the Televisionary, argues that this could be read as a meta-commentary on Chevy Chase himself. I tend to read it more as a show having boxed itself into a corner with a character and finding new things to do with him. The “old guy who says crazy or insensitive things” bit is familiar, and somewhat overplayed, and as a show that’s neither written by nor watched by older people, the show seemed to have trouble making him a convincing character, as opposed to the guy who sits around saying stuff.

Chang (Ken Jeong) didn’t really work out in the villain role they appeared to be testing him for earlier in the season, so sliding Pierce into the full-fledged Frank Burns role, the genuinely bad person, finally gives him something to do. You’ll notice people are talking about him as a character a lot more than they used to, when almost everybody seemed to be breaking out except the best-known performer in the cast. It may not work, or last, since redemptive endings are baked into this particular show. But then again the Russo Brothers suggested in their interview that this episode was meant to redeem him a little bit, and it really didn’t at all. If they just go with it and make him the antagonist, that doesn’t bother me; it’ll just mean that after a year and a half of trying to figure out who this guy is, they finally hit on what works: he’s just a rich jerk.

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