It's tempting to blame it all on John Krasinski's face. But that isn't really fair.
While the U.S. version of The Office may have popularized the mockumentary-style sitcom for American audiences, the U.K. iteration had already been there and done that. Besides, before The Office, there were films like This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, iconic comedies from the master of the genre, Christopher Guest, that remind us how funny direct address, interview format can be.
For a while, Krasinski's mugging worked as a punch line: His reaction face was always perfectly timed, the ideal coda to a great line. But over time, that wore thin, and The Office was forced to expand its scope, and to eventually incorporate the previously unseen documentarians into its ninth and final season. The series should serve as a warning to other sitcoms: The mockumentary style has its limits.
And yet, TV writers still haven't learned. The format has persisted and in the process, become lazier and the framework. Who's filming all of this anyway? Apparently, it doesn't matter, as long as the audience gets to see an actor making Krasinski face right into the camera.
The first run of mockumentary series after The Office — Parks and Recreation and Modern Family — get a pass, if only because the trend wasn't totally played out when they began. But at this point, it's strange that either show has stuck with it: Who is still making a documentary about Pawnee, Indiana, and why? How long is this documentary about the today's "modern family" going to last? And how have the cameramen on either show followed these characters around for years without any sort of acknowledgement?
These more established shows don't suffer greatly from the occasional interview break, but it does feel superfluous at this point — and maybe even a little cheap. (Hasn't anyone heard of "show, don't tell"?) What's truly baffling, however, is why a new sitcom would fall into the same trap of the mockumentary. The Michael J. Fox Show, for example, is actually quite good, but it's holding itself back with interviews and Modern Family-esque voiceovers.
In the pilot, it made sense, as daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia) filmed a documentary about her dad's resilience in the face of Parkinson's disease for a class project. It was also an easy (and again, rather lazy) way to introduce all the characters, explain the central conflict, and give us entry into the world of The Michael J. Fox Show. So why, nine episodes later, is the Henry family still talking to the camera? Unless Eve is gunning for some serious extra credit, it just doesn't make any sense.
More to the point, it's unnecessary to drag a potentially great sitcom into knock-off territory. Even when The Michael J. Fox Show is at its best, it remains hampered by a derivative device. And so, we get episodes that are very strong, for the most part — and then take a sharp nosedive in quality as one character offers a final voiceover explicitly stating the moral. Regardless of what Modern Family has led you to believe, people don't talk this way in real life. And when it happens on a sitcom, it undermines the humor. There's no reason for The Michael J. Fox Show to try to be Modern Family when it has so much potential to be its own unique and admirable series.
Compare it to Trophy Wife, another family sitcom in its first season. While the series was initially called "the new Modern Family" — if only because it showcased complicated alternative domestic dynamics in ABC sitcom fashion — Trophy Wife has quickly proven itself to be so much more than that. The lack of direct address is essential: Eschewing mockumentary-style gives the show — which centers on Pete (Bradley Whitford), his current wife Kate (Malin Akerman), his two ex-wives (Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins), and three children — the opportunity to find its own voice. It feels fresh because it refuses to rely on the same tired gags we've watched play out for the past several TV seasons.
And because there are no shortcuts, like breaking the fourth wall, the writing on Trophy Wife becomes stronger out of necessity. Kate never tells us she's trying to fit into more of a parenting role; instead, we see her doing it. And when she screws up, we're not plagued by endless shots of Diane and Jackie rolling their eyes at the camera. We don't need it! We've got more than enough to go on without it.
This summer, nearly 30 years after the release of his first movie mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest brought a new mockumentary series, Family Tree to HBO. In a true sign of how far this style has fallen, the interview portion of the series just didn't work. It slowed everything down and it challenged the audience's suspension of disbelief: For the first time, a Christopher Guest project would have benefited from keeping the fourth wall intact.
If the master of the form can no longer get it right, it's time to retire the mockumentary comedy. It's past its prime — and no amount of mugging for the camera can change that.