Since the American remake of “The Office” hit small screens in 2005, its fabricated documentary style – often referred to as the mockumentary format – has caused a stir in the United States. With ‘Abbott Elementary’ and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ nominated for Best Comedy Series this season, it’s clear the mockumentary subgenre continues to find favor with Television Academy voters and viewers at large. . But what are the roots of the mockumentary, and how successful has the relatively new sitcom phenomenon been at the Emmys so far?
Forerunners of the mockumentary format –– which refers to documentary-style cinema in comedic media, in particular –– can be found as early as the 1930s, with the Luis Bunuel film “Land Without Bread” documenting a real-life region in Spain, using hyperbole in its narration to satirize the living conditions of the poor residents of Las Hurdes, contrasting the disinterested way of speaking of the narrator. Since then, early examples of the shape can be found in films such as 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night” and several Woody Allen images. The subgenre really started gaining popularity in the 1980s with one of the quintessential examples of the subgenres, “This Is Spinal Tap” by Rob Reiner.
Although this comedic documentary style has been around for nearly a century in film, television began to use this form much later. Splashes of TV mockumentaries can be found throughout the 90s in Europe and Australia, on shows such as “The Games” and “The Day Today”, but they really started to pick up around the turn of the century with ” The Office” in the UK. and the “Trailer Park Boys” of Canada. The arrival of “The Office” in the United States in the form of a remake sparked a wave of dummy American television series, which was reflected in the annual Emmy nominations for Comedy Series.
The aforementioned remake of “The Office” won the coveted award for its second season in 2006, its first nomination in the category. It’s worth noting that “Arrested Development” won two years prior, and while it didn’t reference the presence of a documentary crew or feature the characteristic talking heads of the show’s characters, it was shot in a similar cinema-verité style. Over its nine seasons, “The Office” won five Emmys out of 42 nominations: two for editing and one for directing, writing and comedy series. It was nominated for the top prize for five more seasons, but never repeated the feat, losing twice to another mockumentary “Modern Family.”
The ABC sitcom was an Emmys darling, winning the category for each of its first five seasons — but that was just the tip of the iceberg of its Emmys. During its 11 seasons on the air, it won 22 awards, including six for its actors and four for its directors. In 2011, the second year of its run, half of the year’s nominees were mockumentaries, with the third season of “Parks and Recreation” joining the other two. “Parks” received a total of 14 nominations, including once again for Comedy Series in its final season. “Modern Family” was finally dethroned by another cinema-vérité show: “Veep”. After three years of political satire at the top of the charts, things changed in 2018: It was the first comedy lineup in 12 years not to feature a mockumentary.
Other mockumentaries that received Emmy accolades around this time include “Reno 911!” with four nominations in short form categories; “The Muppets” with a nod to its artistic direction; “Documentary Now!” who earned six competing nominations in a variety sketch series; and “American Vandal” was nominated once for Writing for a Limited Series in 2018.
Four years later and it looks like the mockumentary is back in full force. So, as members of the subgenre, how likely are “Abbott Elementary” and “What We Do in the Shadows” to win Outstanding Comedy Series? In the 21st century, we’ve seen only two mockumentaries win the top prize, but four shows that use cinema verité, for a combined total of 10 ceremonies. (Although it’s been five years since “Veep” won the comedy series, it’s worth noting that on the drama side, “Succession,” which also uses cinema verité (and is often quite hilarious too), won its first prize. last year and is about to repeat his feat.)
As far as true mockumentaries go, it’s been eight years since “Modern Family” won comedy series (almost 20 since “The Office”), and that streak is set to continue. In our combined ratings, “Abbott Elementary” is fourth to win the Emmy, despite seven nominations. “Shadows,” on the other hand, also received seven nominations, but was only nominated for its writing in the above-the-line categories. For that, it ranks seventh in our odds, just above “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But while this year may feel like a long shot for both shows, there’s always next time.
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