Sixteen years since 'The Office' first aired on British television, why does every subsequent sitcom pretend to be something it's not?
Watching BBC Three's latest venture, This Country, I was gripped by a sense of deja vu that soon tipped over in a deep fatigue-inducing ennui. The programme has been described as "perfect, horrifying TV" by the Guardian; as possessing "an uneasily well-observed quality that raises the comedic genre almost to an art form" by the Independent; and as the "best British comedy since the Office," by the Telegraph. But we've been here before, lads, haven't we? Over and over again.
Watch this. He's literally got Gareth Keenan's haircut.
To be clear, This Country isn't total garbage by any stretch. There are some pretty decent laughs and neat – if not entirely original – observations about suburban Britain. However, that doesn't change the fact that some 16 years since The Office first aired on British television, I'm way past the point of finding the mockumentary format interesting in any way.
A character brags to camera about what an inspirational leader they are, only for their best friend to undermine them seconds later. Awkward. Someone is giving the camera a guided tour of their ends, but oops, their mum has interrupted mid-shot and ruined it. Embarrassing. The distant shots, recorded through window blinds, as another character is caught on tape doing that compromising thing they just told everyone they hadn't done. Guilty. The talking heads. The shakily-filmed emotional reconciliations. The one character whose eyes roam disbelievingly at the stupidity of the other characters. I. Can't. Get. Enough. Mate.
These gestures and speech patterns are built into British comedies like muscle-memory. Rhythms of dialogue that reduce every human interaction down to the same one-size-fits-all template for quaint social discomfort. UK sitcoms are stuck in a cycle of awkward silence, and until they break free I can't see how they will ever feel exciting again.
This particular strain of mockumentary of course begins with David Brent. Ricky Gervais has cited the reality series Airport (1996) as the original source of inspiration for The Office – firmly rooting the genesis of this comic form in a decidedly pre-millennium idea of television; one that favoured slow-moving scenes and mildly eccentric characters over the high-octane, and higher-drama, American reality television that would come in the following decade.
British comedies had been experimenting with mockumentary before that point. Shows like Brasseye and People Like Us were parodies of factual television – so was Alan Partridge, to a point – but the commitment to "reality" was minimal; all still retained a level of absurdity, however low. It wasn't until The Office that the winning formula was found. In its wake, the Slough branch inspired some very obvious rip-offs, from Phone Shop to Come Fly with Me. But more than that, it created a new mode of expression. From this point on there have seldom been any British sitcoms without the same shaking cameras and eye-twitching stretches of "naturalistic acting" – a form of "naturalism" which has only come to reflect real life as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Take it from someone who wasted his teenage years croaking "aaaaah, that's derogatory" at teachers for cheap laughs: art in this case informed life.
The past decade is characterised by a roll-call of sitcoms, good and bad, set within this affected reality. Peep Show, Smoking Room, Bellamy's People, Him and Her, Pulling, Teachers, W1A, Fresh Meat, Josh – it goes on. Not all of these sitcoms were explicitly parodies of the documentary format, but all relied on the same timing, the same quintessential energy, for laughs. It's perhaps unsurprising that Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse opted to lampoon it in their sketch show, as seen in this skit (which also, somewhat bizarrely, features Nigel Farage).
Still today, even great shows like People Just Do Nothing are shackled to this outdated format, spoofing a type of reality show that hasn't been on TV in earnest in over a decade.
America makes for an interesting case study. They inherited the mockumentary from the UK, but have ended up far less limited by it. The Office: An American Workplace sacked off any pretence it was existing within the confines of "reality" within the first two series, and so was free to pursue far more absurd directions. It's still not as good as the UK version, obviously, but it allowed itself the breathing space to become something different. The same goes for Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation or Modern Family – the documentary devices are there if they need them, but they are far from slaves to them.
Sadly, in the UK, we remain stuck, as though still attempting some basic rebellion against the rickety studio sitcoms of the 1970s. Perhaps what this comes down to is an obsession with authenticity. Most of the British sitcoms that have come to typify this trend aren't explicitly mockumentaries; rather they are simply regurgitating the stifled mannerisms and awkward shuffling of the form in order to seem lifelike. Even a fearlessly innovative show like The Thick of it was still reliant on an element of handycam fourth wall bashing. More recently the excellent Fleabag sought a direct line with its viewers through straight to camera monologues.
Perhaps the American trend we should really take note of lies outside the conventional sitcom all together, and instead looks to the "dramedy". Shows like Transparent, Orange Is the New Black and Fargo have placed comedy within the context of pathos-heavy drama. Even in comparatively lighter fare, like Louie or Aziz Ansari's Master of None, the jokes feel like punctuation marks to human experiences and incidents. The successes of these shows bolster the cause for a post-mockumentary movement. They prove that comedies don't need the pretence of a documentary crew for the action to feel authentic. That realness of emotion can be communicated in a number of ways that are far more interesting, and funnier, than a set of mannerisms exhibited by the regional manager of a fictional paper merchant 16 years ago.
In seeking to make our comedies real we have created an alternate version of reality, full of prolonged silence and extended embarrassments. However wildly different the scenarios get, until writers' obsession with this mundane "naturalism" ends, long-held ideas of Britain's capacity for groundbreaking television comedies will be little more than distant memory.
Which is a bit, awkward.