You are wrong about: The US Office (and company)

carrellPeople seem to enjoy shows like Parks and Recreation, the US Office, and Modern Family, and it’s quite possible that you enjoy these shows too. But you are very wrong to feel that way. Let me explain.

The DVD extras for the film This is Spinal Tap – which begat The Office which begat The US Office, Modern Family, Life is Short, and any number of similarly presented sitcoms that you are probably wrong about – include a sort of parallel dimension movie made up of scenes from the cutting room floor. It lasts over an hour, and it’s as funny as the actual film.

These scenes were left out of This is Spinal Tap not because they aren’t funny, but because they’re not authentic. Similarly, there are deleted scenes from The Office which Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais omitted expressly because they were too obvious, too joke-like, to fit tonally with a show purporting to be a documentary (it’s a shame the pair didn’t maintain this standard for Life is Short).

Conversely, every other mockumentary sitcom you can think of doesn’t even pretend to appear to try and be even vaguely authentic, often supplying questionable pretexts for the fictional film crews to be present and producing characters that behave in conspicuously unrealistic, broadly comic fashion, and conveniently explain their motivations, intentions, and references to camera in a way that it would be quite wrong of you to enjoy.

These explanations to camera are dirty shortcuts, just as pretty much every device arising from the choice to make a sitcom in the documentary style is a cheat, existing purely to make exposition easier to impart, dramatic irony easier to create, and to set up an endless succession of cheap gags that follow a single not-very-funny template.

Exposition: in the normal rules of drama, the story needs to be explained in the situation, by characters in conversation and events on the screen. When a writer has a character provide story information in an unnatural way they are rightly ridiculed for it. The Austin Powers movies feature a character – Basil Exposition – who exists specifically to send up this kind of narrative shortcut (while cunningly also allowing the writers to take it).

But now, somehow, we’ve allowed a breakaway faction of slovely hacks to circumvent the rules entirely and have their characters look you right in the fricking eyes, whenever they want, and tell you exactly what’s happening and/or exactly how they feel about it. You should deplore this practice, even though you probably don’t.

Modern mockumentaries are also stuffed with a certain kind of gag that works like this:

a) Character makes a claim.

b) Footage contradicts the claim.

For example:

a) John (to camera): “I’m very dignified.”

b) John is upside down in a dustbin.

Or they can work the other way around, e.g.:

a) John (to his wife): “Yes, honey, I got the rollerskates!”

b) John (being interviewed): “I did not get the rollerskates.”

This is the cheapest kind of joke imaginable, relying on a simple collision of statements in every case, and each moment of airtime a show like Modern Family or The US Office pads out with pulpy gags like these is a deplorable waste of your time. The fact that you think you’re enjoying them makes them all the more insidious.

But wait a minute, you might say (perhaps out of a misplaced desire to defend your taste), all of the shortcuts and cheats described above might just as easily appear in a well-made mockumentary like The Office and This is Spinal Tap. That’s true, but the difference is that, by scrupulously adhering to the restrictions they impose on themselves in making a show that purports to be a documentary, their writers also earn the right to enjoy the perks – the easy exposition, the flatpack dramatic irony, the easy gags. The writers of The Office and This is Spinal Tap respect you.

The writers of Modern Family et al, on the other hand, despise you, because they know that you are letting them get away with inferior workmanship.

Like drug addicts or compulsive gamblers, they secretly want to be confronted and put on a better path, and they hate you for blindly enabling their depraved, corrupting rampage.

They of all people know that you are utterly wrong to enjoy the absurd proposition they are presenting, and you owe it to them – and to yourself – to admit that you are wrong.


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