Emmy Prefers Abbott Elementary’s Version Over “The Office” Fake Documentation Form

What makes Abbott Elementary so successful? The half-hour sitcom about an underfunded majority-black elementary school in Philadelphia, which returns for a second season Sept. 21, is the ABC network’s highest-rated new comedy in years, and one of rare pure comedies that managed to become popular.

Much of that is thanks to Quinta Brunson, who created the series and stars as an idealistic young teacher, earning Emmy nominations for writing, producing, and acting. Randall Einhorn, an executive producer who directed the pilot and several other episodes, describes her not only as an excellent showrunner but also as “a really warm person who also comes to everything with a very open mind.” But perhaps one thing that helped the sitcom take hold was a decision Brunson made when she conceived it as an animated show, and stuck with it when she turned it into live action: it uses the framing device of a documentary on the school.

There aren’t many rules for succeeding in modern television, but the “mockumentary” is the closest thing the networks have come to replacing the old-fashioned sitcom. Most hits are still the ones that get the laughs on the soundtrack: “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory” outlived other, more stylish shows about attractive young bachelors. Single-camera sitcoms with high production values ​​and no-laugh leads are usually cult hits, rather than big mainstream hits.

The big exceptions are two shows that apparently have nothing in common except the mockumentary format: the Americanized version of Ricky Gervais’ “The Office,” where a documentary crew invades a white-collar set and never seems to leave, and “Modern Family,” where a group of TV veterans borrowed the style of “The Office” to make a sitcom about domestic life. Add to that the 126-episode series of “Parks & Recreation,” which “The Office” producers shot in the same style, “Trailer Park Boys,” which used the format before breaking into the U.S., and now “Abbott Elementary,” and it’s hard to think of a North American mockumentary that doesn’t successful. Meanwhile, Netflix’s “The Office” – one of the few sitcoms to become a streaming blockbuster – is keeping a new generation of fans invested in form.

One of the reasons the mockumentary is the natural successor to the studio-audience sitcom is that it has its own formula and its own rules that are almost as rigid and provide a comforting familiarity no matter what show we let’s look. All of America’s best-selling mockumentaries have a similar visual language: they’re filmed by handheld cameras that circle around to catch someone who’s just started talking, or zoom in when the camera operator spots something important. . Characters sometimes react to what they see by peeking into the camera. The scenes are often cut from interviews with the characters, delivering a quick exposition or joke about the scene in progress. There is little or no music on the soundtrack, no narrator, and documentarians rarely or never appear. He is influenced by the no-frills and seemingly objective documentary style popularized in North America by Albert and David Maysles (the Rolling Stones doc “Gimme Shelter”) and the National Film Board of Canada, but also by reality TV. , which exploded in popularity just before the launch of the American version of “The Office”.

Einhorn, who directed the four biggest American mockumentaries, was the original cinematographer of “The Office” in the United States, and he had experience in documentaries and reality shows, including working as a cameraman on America’s first reality blockbuster, “Survivor.” He said the dummy sitcom takes some of the elegance of a good documentary but, like the documentary’s less respectable cousin, adds the uncomfortable but exciting feeling that we’re spying on the characters: “You feel aware of something . It makes you lean or look around the corner. Reality TV does that really well,” he told The Star.

Greg Daniels, who developed and directed “The Office” and co-created “Parks & Recreation”, said the format is also “relevant to anyone who has ever shot video with their phone”. A common device on these shows is to enhance that feeling of found footage by filming something from a distance, or through a cracked door or window, “to make it feel like we’re watching something that’s been captured, as if we had the privilege of seeing that,” Einhorn said. “When the camera is further away, it feels more real.”

This distance, ironically, may be part of what brings us closer to characters in a mockumentary than in a conventional single-camera comedy. One of the reasons the laugh track was invented on television was to create the illusion of watching a show with a crowd. The mockumentary does something similar by creating an invisible audience that we can experience the show with – instead of hearing an audience laugh, we watch the film crew react to what the characters are doing. Einhorn said he tells camera operators “what they need to know about the characters, which informs how and when they zoom and how far they move. It’s about how the characters feel, which informs on how they interact with the actors”. The cameras adapt in real time to what is happening, and this helps us know how to react to what is happening.

The characters’ interaction with the cameras also helps establish who they are. Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) on “The Office” was defined by his wry half-smiles on camera and the characters on “Abbott Elementary” all have their own way of dealing with this invasion in their life. Einhorn said Ava (Janelle James), the school’s unkind headmistress, “uses the camera because she cares about her public image, so she uses it to look good.” Meanwhile, Gregory (Tyler James Williams), who is struggling with his new job as a teacher and his attraction to Janine (Quinta Brunson’s character) “feels caught, I think by the cameras”, and doesn’t seem sure of how to behave while they’re around.

Daniels told The Star that the format “allows for a layer of commentary on the action from many different perspectives.” “Abbott Elementary” uses these different perspectives – like the scenes where the characters act aware of the camera and the scenes where they don’t – as a source of quick jokes or characterization that would take much longer to put together on another kind of show. In the pilot, Janine asks Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an older teacher, if she received an email asking if they could spend some time together. Barbara responds that she didn’t, then makes eye contact with the camera for a few seconds, instantly letting us know she’s lying.

The success of “Abbott Elementary” may help establish the mockumentary as more than a gimmick, because instead of being a copycat of “The Office,” it uses the format to do something entirely different with the ambience and visual approach. On “The Office,” Einhorn said, “you had this dull lighting and it looked more like a prison than an office.” But Brunson wanted “Abbott Elementary” to celebrate teachers who try to do their best for children. This led to a more inviting look: “You have these big warm windows, beautiful smiling children; it should feel much warmer. We talked about it a lot. As we see what else the format can do, it will always have an element that Einhorn describes: “There’s this almost voyeuristic fun. It’s such an interesting way to tell a story because it sucks the viewer in. And isn’t voyeuristic pleasure specific to television?

“Abbott Elementary” returns for a second season Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. on Global

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