Fiction portrayed as reality: why mockumentaries are so enjoyable to watch

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There’s something about a mockumentary that’s just so watchable. Scrolling through Netflix looking for your next series to get stuck into is a time-consuming process and pledging yourself to a new show is always a commitment. A mockumentary is always a safe bet. But why? After considering it, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. 

The first point to make is about characterisation. Mockumentaries are great for the development of character because the actions and interactions of characters are punctured by monologues. Each character has the space and opportunity to shine, and we get to know them all as individuals. This makes us so much more invested and interested in the moments when the characters come together, it’s like watching a chemical reaction. 

Take, for example, The Office. It’s a classic, and the model was used to create an American version of the show following its success in the UK. What makes The Office so great is its characters, and the mockumentary format brings characterisation to the fore. Each character becomes almost like a caricature, and we can identify our own colleagues and peers in the stereotypes that the show presents. This generates the comedy that drives the appeal as we watch extremely idiosyncratic individuals undertaking the most mundane, universal activities. 

A mockumentary is mocking of ordinariness and humour is key to why we watch and love them

Comedy is clearly key to the success of the mockumentary. The clue is in the name; a mockumentary is mocking of ordinariness and humour is key to why we watch and love them. The comedy in a mockumentary is clever because it highlights the humour in what might otherwise seem a depressing and pretty tedious reflection of reality – for example, the paper company in Scranton where The Office is set is far from inspiring. Mockumentaries offer a perspective on our own lives that is not new – in fact it is all too familiar – but which allows us to see the funny side of human behaviours and scenarios that might in fact be far from funny were they not at a safe distance on the TV screen. 

Clearly, the mockumentary has proven itself to be a winning formula

It would therefore seem that the power of the mockumentary is in the characters and comedy that the genre’s structure encourages. I’ve used the example of The Office but there are other very popular mockumentaries – like Modern Family, Borat, W1A (to name just a few) – to which the same analysis could apply. The documentary format puts a different spin on fictional narratives which lends itself to comedy in the way that it frames reality in a very immediate and direct way. Mockumentaries also accelerate character development with the format meaning that every individual is a protagonist. Clearly, the mockumentary has proven itself to be a winning formula.

Image: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia

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