Friday, May 27, 2011

"Mockumentary" style sitcoms -- innovative or lazy writing?

Okay, I think I’ve got the calendar right this time. THIS is the Memorial Day weekend coming up. Here are some Friday questions to kick off the summer.


bmfc1 wonders about the current sitcom trend of doing them in a “mockumentary” style.

Ken, do you think that this is a lazy form of writing? Instead of having the characters talk to each other to advance the plot, they talk to a fictional documentary crew.

And I can't get past why a documentary would be made about any of these people.

Especially in the case of MODERN FAMILY, I don’t think it’s lazy writing at all. Those MF episodes are so well crafted and have so much going on that I suspect they’re harder to write than most single or multi-camera comedies. As for the “interview” segments, yes, those can be a trap to get out lazy exposition but MF, THE OFFICE, and PARKS & REC manage to cleverly avoid that and use those segments more as comic punctuation.

As for the second part of your question, there’s no question there’s a suspension of belief required. Especially in the case of THE OFFICE. How much footage do these people need to do a documentary? They're not making TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.  A reader of the blog, Mac, contributed a comment recently that nicely explains the derivation of this genre.

The pseudo-doc form in TV comedy came out of a trend in late 90's British TV called 'docu-soaps.' These were ordinary or unremarkable people in everyday situations. They were cheap to make, access to workplaces and people was easy, and they got good ratings. There was loads of them - in an airport, a driving school, a pest control firm.

It was a format that UK viewers were very familiar with at the time. As the participants cottoned on that being in one could get you a bit of fame, they started playing up more for the camera.

Thanks, Mac. So Ricky Gervais’ OFFICE was a spoof of these. I’m sure that here in America they just copied the form for our version simply because that’s what the Brits did. So what if there's no context?  It's different!   And since the show was a success, others copied it.  I'm 1000% certain that if a sitcom premieres and is a huge hit and is in black and white that the next season there will be six more black and white pilots. 

Personally, I’m ambivalent about the mockumentary. It’s clearly just a gimmick, and for me it’s the story, humor, and characters that I’m drawn to. If they make me laugh, I don’t care if it’s a mockumentary, cartoon, or puppet show.

Rarely, does the device get in the way for me… although it did once on MODERN FAMILY. Ironically, it was in one of my favorite episodes. It’s the one where the kids accidentally enter their parents’ bedroom while they’re making love. There was a shot from the kids’ POV, which I buy. I believe a cameraman might have followed them up the stairs. But there was also a camera in the bedroom. So we’re supposed to assume that a cameraman is always present when they have sex? If so, forget about what else happens in the family. Just show THAT.


Phillip B asks:

So a serious question - is there really enough talent out there ready to fuel a sitcom renaissance?

Absolutely. Without question. You just need the RIGHT people. Trust me, there are scores of incredibly talented Emmy winning writers who can’t get arrested. And that number pales in comparison to the number of gifted actors who are telling you the nightly specials at the Cheesecake Factory. This isn’t like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. Hollywood doesn’t have to turn over rocks to find six people who can perform without inducing projectile vomiting from the audience.

Sebastian queries: 

What do you think is the most powerful female character in the us-sitcom-history. Whose attitude was groundbraking, who is the most powerful? And did it all start with Mary Richards? What about Ellen Morgan? 

One word: Lucy.



And finally, from Terry Benish:

I have invested enough time in reading your blog to become hooked. I began to think of process in terms of your work and writing for new and ongoing projects that you are involved in, your life as it were. I enjoy humor and good wine and as an analogy a vintner over time loses the joy that say a novice like me receives when he tastes a good Syrah for the first time. Does that also capture what it is like for you? Do you taste the terroir of the joke and get lost in the technicality of the joke or bit? Are you able to laugh freely and be surprised very often, if at all? Best wishes.

Nothing pleases me more than just laughing heartily at something I’m watching. When I start noticing the technicalities that’s because I’m not fully engaged. I was on a Mariners’ team flight recently watching an episode of BIG BANG THEORY and laughing my ass off. I was getting funny looks but I didn’t give a shit. A good joke will make me laugh. And for the record, I like my jokes slightly woodsy, dry, and playfully articulate.

What’s your question? Drive carefully this weekend. And if you're traveling, buy my book.

50 comments:

Lothar said...

> And if you're traveling, buy my book

Is there a reason why you only offer it for Kindle and Nook and not in a format, everybody else is using. IOW: Why not ePub if it has to be "secured" with DRM?

404 said...

Lothar--can't you just use Calibre to convert it to Epub?

Ken--I always thought the mock-umentaries here in the States owed as much, if not more, to the success of the Christopher Guest films such as "This is Spinal Tap" and "Best in Show" as well. If they didn't play an active role in the genesis of shows like MF, I think at the very least they would have contributed to that genre being more accepted by the American public.

ed.j. said...

Regarding mockumentaries, aside from Lisa's Kudrow's great but slightly painful 'The Comeback' where the humour is at least partially about her trying to shape the documentary so we see the crew and there is interaction, I now think of shows like Modern Family as more of a reflection of our media/star saturated culture where it's not a 'real' camera crew there; just each of us talking to our own personal biographer/Letterman/60 Minutes crew that follows me around in my mind.
IS there a prize for the longest run-on sentence ever posted in your comments?

Holt said...

Funny about 'where' the mockumentary came from. I actually was thinking back to a few MASH episodes that had this element: Radar, Col. Potter, Hawkeye would be interviewed for a news reel-type account of the war for people back home.

Actually , I was wondering if you wrote any of those Ken?

It's been awhile, but the one line out of them all that stood out to me was when they asked Col. Potter if he wanted to say hi to anyone at home - and we all knew how much he missed Mildred - and he still said, 'No, I don't think that'd be dignified'; it just kind of really placed the viewer in a different time/place.

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I wonder how much the series Trailer Park Boys, which debuted the same year as the original The Office also fueled this mockumentary trend.

Carson said...

What's the fastest you've seen or had one of your scripts go from the writing to production to air?

Eric said...

The non-existent documentarians of Modern Family probably have a retirement plan based on Gloria outtakes and "accidentally" shot footage.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

and he still said, 'No, I don't think that'd be dignified'; it

I read your first paragraph and immediately thought of that line before I got to the third. Col Potter was a mensch's mensch, wasn't he?

I watched the rerun of Carrell's last Office last night, and they seemed to remember/have some fun with the whole camera crew thing, from Jim's "Really? You guys are following people into the bathroom now?" to the nice last moments at the airport to "Let me know if this thing ever airs!"

RDaggle said...

re: the 'docudrama' style --

MTV's The Real World first went on the air in 1992. It will be twenty years old next year.

And they were probably ripping off the cinema verite style movies which were popular since the 1960s.

And don't forget The American Family series on PBS back in the 70s, also.

Gary said...

I'll be reading more of your book this weekend, afterall, IT'S MY BIRTHDAY, YOU C**T!!!! And for a change, I look forward to seeing how the Mariners' pitchers compete against those Damn Yankees. If only the Mariner "hitters" have replaced their Nerf bats with Louisville Sluggers, or even Louisville Line-drivers. Have a good weekend.

WorstWriterEver said...

When it comes to Modern Family's mockumentary style, I think one should ask what is the best way to tell a particular story.

At first I also thought that using mockumentary style is lazy writing, but after I had managed to write Modern Family myself, I came to the conclusion that it isn't necessarily so.

A good rule of thumb in my opinion is that you should use it in the beginning. Because that's when 'the interviews' connect with the audience. Later on they mostly pull you out of the story, which of course is big big big mistake.

So my classic answer to whether it's lazy writing, is 'it really depends'.

Mac said...

Glad to have been of service to your mighty blog, and delighted to see my comment in the Friday Questions post.
That's interesting about suspension of disbelief.
The UK Office finale had a few techniques that couldn't have happened in a documentary; like cross-shooting in situations in which it would have been impossible or faked in a documentary.
It had gone from mock-doc to drama but no-one noticed, or if they did, they didn't care. By that stage it was guaranteeing huge laughs and the audience was totally absorbed in the story.

David L said...

Not sure if you would call it "Mockumentary" but in the 1950s George Burns spoke directly to the camera on the legendary and hilarious "Burns & Allen" sitcom. Garry Shandling, I think, also used that in his first series in the early '80s.

Kirk said...

I always assumed the mocumentary sitcoms were parodies of reality shows, in which case, they would need a lot of footage. They need a lot of footage for Jersey Shore, don't they? The problem, though, is that if it's a reality show that's picked up season after season, eventually the recurring characters would become celebrities (in the fictional universe that they inhabit) and start appearing on magazines, on talk shows etc. The makers of the fictional reality show would edit that kind of thing out, of course (as they do on real-life reality shows) but that also means there's a part of these characters lives we're not privy to. Also, on reality shows, the suspicion arises that the way the participents behave is different than they might behave if they didn't know the camera was on them. Shouldn't that be true of their fictional counterparts as well?

I know I'm overthginking this. Maybe ed.j has the right idea. These aren't meant to be documentaries at all, just the characters going about their lives, and when see them talking to the camera, they're merely siloqueys, a la Hamlet.

Kirk said...

That should be "soliloquys". I'm not overthinking my spelling.

Larry said...

I agree that it's hard enough to make people laugh, so whatever works, works. Still, the mockumentary style often puts me off.

Biggest complaints (which may have already been noted somewhat):

1) All the "bad" camera shots, unfocused, not centered, etc, to male it feel more "real." These are defects in real documentaries, and they're copying them.

2) Talking directly to the camera isn't generally used for plot purposes, but to toss in an easy joke. Except I always ask myself when did they tape this interview, since they're often referring to something that makes sense in the middle of the scene but no longer applies after.

3) When it's convenient for the plot, the doc crew has trouble getting something (like, say, early Jim and Pam having a relationship) but most of the time they're everywhere, getting impossible shots, and hearing impossible things, often with two cameras required. (Albert Brooks dealt with this well in what may be the granddaddy of mockumentaries, Real Life.)

4) I still can't shake the feeling in the back of my mind that no one would shoot so much for a documentary, even if they could get the access.

Brian said...

I just read "Love, Lucy", by Lucille Ball. Its an auto biography written by her before 1964. Supposedly it was discovered after she died. In in it she mentions that Desi Arnez was the inventor of the three camera method of filming a show and never used a laugh track. True?

John said...

Albert Brooks anticipates two current TV/movie trends from 32 years ago. Everything old is new again.

Michael Zand said...

There was a cameraman in Claire and Phil's bedroom when they were having sex. In fact, I have the tape. Interested buyers can email me with their credit card numbers through this blog.

Seattle40 said...

Ken,
I was wondering how you would characterize the style of Arrested Development. I have been thinking about it and can't really decide if it has some mock documentary aspect to it or not.

Andy Ihnatko said...

I found it a little jarring when...

(possible SPOILERS for "The Office")

...Steve Carell had his final episode, and Michael Scott, at the airport, addresses the cameraman and says "Tell me when this comes on, OK?"

Because up until then, I thought the show had cleverly and without any fuss transitioned the role of the camera operator from "a documentary/reality producer" to "A co-worker in the office." That the whole show was being experienced from the point of view of another Dunder-Mifflin employee.

It's an impossible setup and the smart shows either parry it off completely (like the US "Office") or fully embrace it (like the UK "Office").

Carson said...

Seattle40, Arrested Development was a mockumentary, and one that was narrated, no less. It was supposed to be a "documentary" on the Bluth family. There wasn't any lazy writing in that show.

I'm with Ken, the style of show doesn't determine laziness of writing. It's the writer that determines that. When I watch a pilot where they explain everything instead of show us how they got there, THAT's lazy writing.

I enjoy shows like ITV's Marple and Poirot, but what they do that bugs me is they still employ the old Agatha Christie "gather everyone together and explain who did it for the entire last act.

People (read networks) think that writing horribly expositional pilots is just fine (just look at the backdoor pilot for the abysmal "Finder" last month), but I find it shows a laziness and lack of respect for the viewer. The pilot can be difficult to write, but when done really well, it doesn't feel like they're just setting up shop.

I think it's interesting that now the industry norm is that EPs and networks want to read original pilots to get YOUR voice, rather than read a spec of a show on the air. Although eventually I think you'll have to write a spec to show you can write in the head writer's voice if you want to get staffed.

te said...

(possible SPOILERS for "The Office")

...Steve Carell had his final episode, and Michael Scott, at the airport, addresses the cameraman and says "Tell me when this comes on, OK?"


Thanks for the warning, but the line was cited in a post upthread.

Cap'n Bob said...

"suspension of disbelief"

Knuckles said...

So, how come you get to do PBP when the M's face the freaking Tigers in Detroit, but you don't get it when they face the Yanls in Seattle (yes, Yanls is on purpose)?

Also, I'm curious, what are your favorite shows across the board? I know that "The Good Wife" is a favorite, along with "Modern Family" (a show that, contrary to everyone's positive reviews, simply fails to make me laugh). Me, I do love "Community" something fierce, along with "Parks and Recreation". Oh, and "Chuck," but I can't decide if that's because of Yvonne Strahovski or because it's actually really, really funny.

Jim S said...

Ken,

If memory serves, I recall Steve Levant in an interview saying he was originally going to have a documentary crew play a big part in the show, but realized that he didn't like the families in reality shows, so Modern Family became a show like Bernie Mac or Malcolm in the Middle, where characters (Malcolm and Bernie) directly addressed the camera, but were not documentaries.

That makes sense. As pointed out earlier, George Burns had been doing that 60 years ago. Heck Bugs Bunny even longer.

So yes, I but a show where characters address the fourth wall without it being a documentary.

Question: During a table reading, how animated are the actors? Do some just read the lines, and then come to life during performance, or are they required to be in character during the initial read?

Anonymous said...

Didn't the "mocumentry" and ignoring the wall between the audience and the performers never really exist?

I ( hate to admit it) remeber in my very tender years watch the "Ozzie and Harriet Show" show and seem to remeber the father turning to address the audience during the show. usually in backyard or someplace"private" the same with the Burns and Allen show where George would do the same.
I may be wrong on this one but didn't Lonesome George gobbels do the same? memory very, very vague an that.

DwWashburn said...

I really enjoy Modern Family and I have never considered it to be a documentary. I've always thought that the "interview" segments were just the characters talking to the viewers whether or not they are looking directly into the camera. Except for the interview segments, they never acknowledge the camera which dilutes the documentary feel.

My major complaint about current sitcoms is that damn jiggling camera. Dear God, you put enough money into making these episodes -- invest in a $50 tripod. It doesn't make the show more "first person" as I've heard others say. All it does it makes me stop watching the plot and start watching the background and actors bouncing around. If I want ameteur film making, I'll watch AFHV.

A_Homer said...

After so many years, a program should be able to evolve or tweak its format, just like when a side character from the first episodes ends up transforming into a favorite lead (Fonzie, etc...) I think precisely at that point at the last episode of Carrel's Office, when he gave back the microphone and so on to the cameracrew, there was the chance to shift styles for the new era of the Office afterwards. That would have made sense and at this point just a slightly registered change in approach that would have freshened up the space for the new guy.

rhys said...

Jim S is correct. The creator of Modern Family has said they were originally going to structure the show as if there was an actual documentary being filmed - but instead they changed it so it's a family sitcom done documentary style, but it's not really a documentary. There are not really camera crews or interviews taking place - it's just a storytelling device nice. Sometimes the scene will go back and forth between an unfolding event and a talking head where the character doing the talking head is clearly changing their statements based on the events unfolding. The interview where the creator said this is here: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2010/01/modern_family_co-creator_steve.html

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D. McEwan said...

"Brian said...
I just read "Love, Lucy", by Lucille Ball. Its an auto biography written by her before 1964. Supposedly it was discovered after she died. In in it she mentions that Desi Arnez was the inventor of the three camera method of filming a show and never used a laugh track. True?"


Yes. Desi Arnaz and his DP, the great Karl Freund (He shot Metropolis and Dracula, and directed The Mummy and Mad Love), did indeed invent three-camera TV shooting, and no laugh track was employed.

"Carson said...
I enjoy shows like ITV's Marple and Poirot, but what they do that bugs me is they still employ the old Agatha Christie "gather everyone together and explain who did it for the entire last act."


That's because they're filming Agatha Christie stories (You do know Marple and Poirot are her characters, right?) and trying to do them faithfully. This is like criticizing the Lord of the Rings movies for having elves and hobbits in them like in Tolkien books. "I'd love Gone With the Wind, but they set it during that boring Civil War."

Naz said...

There was Lucy, and then there was everybody else. Still funny almost 60 years later.

bevo said...

"So Ricky Gervais’ OFFICE was a spoof of these. I’m sure that here in America they just copied the form for our version simply because that’s what the Brits did. So what if there's no context?"

There is context. Have you watched any of the garbage thrown up by TLC? We've had camera crews following around people who make cakes, ink people, bake cupcakes for a living (I hope they are making a living while the rest of us laugh our asses off at them).

Hell, we have had shows devoted to people buying their first house, flipping a house (go back and watch those episodes for a really good laugh), renting their first apartments. Of course, don't forget the assholes who buy houses in the third world. Nothing like good old fashion colonialism on HGTV.

Every time I see these d-bags on there, I think "Hi, Lawrence Bourne the Third. Ugly American" as Tom Hanks tosses American dollar bills into the throng.

One was spoof. The other d-bag. You pick.

I have never thought of Modern Family as an example of the mockumentary genre. Rather, the characters are breaking the fourth wall similar to Jack Benny looking at the look with his great put upon look.

wv: punta - (if memory from 7th grade Spanish serves correctly) whore.

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Carson said...

"That's because they're filming Agatha Christie stories (You do know Marple and Poirot are her characters, right?) and trying to do them faithfully. This is like criticizing the Lord of the Rings movies for having elves and hobbits in them like in Tolkien books. "I'd love Gone With the Wind, but they set it during that boring Civil War."

I am tasked with adapting an Agatha Christie Novel for TV as we speak, so the difficulties and challenges of adaptations are something I am getting to know well.

D, it's one thing to be faithful to a story (which, if yo watch Marple, they aren't. They change up the killer, the victims, the motives), but adapting a book for TV or film means you have to transcend the book - or why do it? If they change all these other things, they certainly could, and should, give us a more active and physical approach to the reveal. Even the new Sherlock series on the BBC SHOWS us how Sherlock figured it out - and the books and short stories by Conan Doyle don't do that.

The Lord of the Rings movies (which I loved) changed a fair amount of the story to make it more cinematic and film-able. And I don't think you can equate making the ending more active, while still employing the reveal moment akin to moving Gone With The Wind out of the Civil War. That's kind of like equating going for a walk with moving out of the country.

So I respectfully disagree with your assertion, but I am always happy to debate. :)

Chris G said...

Question for Ken: What was at the top of the stairs that led into Cheers? Did the stairs ever present any issues in terms of blocking, timing, actors spraining ankles, etc.?

David Russell said...

I often find the 'mockumentary' format distracting, as in The Office - I just can't conceive of anyone making a film about this paper company and not accepting the conceit can't really get into the show. The camera crew seems so obviously meant to be a part of the storytelling.

On MF, it feels a little more "fourth-wall" breaking, like the characters are inviting me in to chat, as opposed to answering questions of a documentarian. I don't really get the impression it's a film being made more than a direct conversation with the viewer.

It just feels more genuine and less contrived on MF to me.

D. McEwan said...

"Carson said...
D, it's one thing to be faithful to a story (which, if yo watch Marple, they aren't."


Depends on which Marple you're watching. The Joan Hickson ones, most of which I watched with my mother, were quite faithful. The Geraldine McEwan ones (God I hope she's a relative, because I adore her!) went wildly astray. My mother, who read every word Christie ever wrote, even her grocery lists, would point out, angrily, the slightest deviations from the books she knew almost by heart. Mother condemned the Angela Lansbury film of Christie's The Mirror Cracked to eternal damnation simply because it showed Miss Marple smoking a cigarette. "MISS MARPLE WOULD NEVER SMOKE!" she screamed! Had she lived to see the McEwan Marples, she would have had a stroke, and would have dropped her married last name.

Which is another factor, pleasing the Agatha Christie fans, as whom else are you making them for? They expect that third act suspect round-up and the explciation of the case. It's a convention that is as much a part of Christie as the murders themselves, and to drop it is to violate what you're adapting.

How faithful an adaptation must be depends for one thing, on the source material. Jackson had to make changes and cuts. Hitchcock took little more than the premise from the novel VertigoPsycho is amazingly faithful to the novel. Norman is made younger, the first chapter is dropped, and the second chapter expanded into the first half of the film, but otherwise, it's Bloch's novel as plotted by Bloch, with better dialogue.

Some of the best "adaptations" are those that "adapt" least. Rosemary's Baby and Huston's The Maltese Falcon for examples, follow their books so closely, it's almost like they used the books for the screenplays. Rewrite Shakespeare, and you'll be roasted alive.

The WIzard of Oz is a beloved movie, but its changes of the book are really too much for lovers of the book. I've never forgiven it for making Oz a dream. My mother never forgave it for making Sliver Shoes into Ruby Slippers.

It's a case-by-case problem.

D. McEwan said...

I saw the recent Suchet Murder on the Orient Express, and I thought it excellent. It's been 30 years since I read it, but it seemed faithful to how I remember the book.

I'm glad you brought up Sherlock. Now I am as big a nut for the Doyle stories, all of which I've read and reread over and over for the whole of my life, as my mom was for Christie. When I saw the Robert Downey Jr. Film, I wanted everyone involved in making it shot, or at least waterboarded. It infuriated me!

But I loved Sherlock. Now of course, most of the Doyle stories have already been done to perfection by Jeremy Brett, a fine example of how to do a minimal adpatation exactly correct.

But Sherlock, by moving Sherlock Holmes into the present, needed to be radically adapted. It's more "Based on characters created by" than outright adaptations of the stories. I went in expecting to hate it. He's been moved up to the present before, and it's always been dreadful. I hate the 12 Basil Rathbone Universal Holmes movies all set in the 1940s (love the two from 20th Century Fox, even if the Baker Street digs are way too large and sumptuous), and there was another attempt at a modern Sherlock as a TV series a while back that sucked.

But Sherlock got it all right, by capturing the characters right, and also by scrupulously mining the original stories in extremely clever ways. The second episode, which was wholly original, was the low point of the three, but the first and last episodes, which used the stories, but in subtle clever ways, were brilliant. There's great adapting. I joyfully await season 2. Peter Jackson is scheduling his Hobbit shoot to accomodate Martin Freeman's need to return to England to shoot season 2.

D. McEwan said...

Lastly (unless you want to continue the debate. It is an interesting argument, and neither side is clearly right or wrong), 35 years ago I had to adapt Dracula for the stage.

I wanted to be as faithful to Stoker as I could manage, but there were, of course, immediate problems. I had to cut back (as almost everyone who has adapted it has) the large cast of good guys (Bye,bye Quincey Morris.), and add a scene in England of Harker and all those princicples at the beginning, so they don't all appear from nowhere 30 minutes later. (And added a short scene in the middle of the Transylvania scenes of the worrying women left back in England.)

And then, once back in England, the overlong book had to be telescoped, or the play would run for four hours. The director wanted a Van Helsing-Dracula confrontation scene, so one of these went in. (Quite different from the one in the boring Lugosi movie)

Then, in the last act, well, I couldn't do a cross-European chase by boat, train, and horseback on stage, despite our lavish budget and large theater. (My santitorium set had two stories and four rooms, and the Castle Dracula set also had four rooms, a HUGE staircase, and was very, very tall, towering up almost 30 feet.) Nor could I bring on a band of gypsies for a gun battle outside the Castle, which would have required a FOURTH giant set (I also had a set for Lucy's crypt and graveyard.) and four of five more actors, plus horses.

So, though I did bring everyone back to Castle Dracula at the climax (thus reusing our gigantic castle set), I had to have a different climax from the book's. Since I couldn't kill Dracula the way Stoker did, I vowed to kill him a way no one had ever used before, so Harker, at what seems Dracula's moment of ultimate triumph, sloshed him, head-to-foot, with Holy Water, and he melted like the Wicked Witch. Worked great, and looked wonderful on stage. (The show was a rousing success.)

But I also couldn't have Van Helsing roam about staking the three vampire brides first, and certainly not afterwords, so I was stuck, and resorted to an easy out I'm still ashamed of: I had them scream and vanish as Dracula melted, and gave Van Helsing a throway line about how "They were but mere creatures of his will. They too are gone forever." What crap.

Adaptation is a tricky process, and there is no right or wrong way to do it, but I strongly feel you must honor the characters and intent, and in some case conventions, of the source material, or you dishonor what you're adapting. Agatha Christie has to have the suspect round-ups as much as she has to have the murders. (And anyone in a Christie story who survives a murder attempt is ALWAYS the murderer.)

Carson said...

I agree on all point of your take on BBC's Sherlock. The second (which was written by neither Moffat nor Gatiss and it shows. Strangely I am not a fan of any of Gatiss' other works as a writer, but he really can write in Moffat's voice so the first and third episodes were stellar.

BTW Sherlock is already shooting season 2. They started last Monday. Martin Freeman flew in to the UK in time to win a BAFTA last weekend and now he has about 4-5 months on Sherlock before returning to NZ.

Now for Marple. I literally mean "Agatha Christie's Marple" the current program that had McEwan and now Julia MacKenzie. I have seen some of the Hickson series "Miss Marple" and they were extremely faithful adaptations from the stories. No, I mean the current ones. Where they butcher everything, yet still make you sit through 20 minutes of her telling you what happened. I have no issue with the rounding up of subjects - that's a must for Miss Marple - but there is no need for it to be so long and lacking in physicality. This isn't My Dinner with Andre. Show me, don't tell me.

Your Dracula adaptation sounds like a great time and interesting to do.

I do take issue with one thing you said, "How faithful an adaptation must be depends for one thing, on the source material." It also depends on our audience. If it was 1945, then having a stagey TV show with lots of standing around wouldn't be strange, but today's audiences expect TV shows to be mini-movies and that means showing them, not telling them.

D. McEwan said...

"Carson said...
If it was 1945, then having a stagey TV show with lots of standing around wouldn't be strange"


Having any kind of TV show in 1945 would be very strange indeed. TV broadcasting wasn't really happening until 1948 - 1950.

I have not seen any of the Julia MacKenzie Marples. I adore Julia, I saw her onstage in Sweeney Todd in London in 1994. I went in not knowing who she was, and was her slave by intermission. She was better than Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, and I saw Lansbury play the show live three times. Sorry to hear her Marple sucks. (And I've heard that elsewhere also.

But it sounds like, regarding how her version is handling the suspect round ups, the problem is as much how it's staged and directed as how it's written. But the fault lies not in the convention, but in the treatment.

That "today's audiences expect" line can be a slippery slope. It was how Guy Ritchie began every sentence justifying trying to turn Sherlock Holmes into Indiana Jones. Frankly, overly-stagey scenes were as boring in 1945 as they are now. Ever seen the early 195s TV Sherlock Holmes with Ronald Howard?They were my introduction to the character when I was about 4. They are AWFUL! Boring, boring, boring.

Clever adapting can do wonders. Look at the awfully good movie of Death onthe Nile where contradictory flashbacks are used to break up and illustrate Poirot's case summation theories, which gave us the added joy of seeing Lois Chiles killed over and over and over. As she is one hideously Godawful excuse for an actress, utterly unable to act at all (Her performance as "Dr. Goodhead" in Moonraker is an all-time low for Bond Girl acting, and there's a a lot of bad Bond girl acting), seeing her murdered repeatedly while in the company of a cast of giant talents was pure Heaven to me.

BTW, I have made three sepreate attempts over the years to sit through My Dinner With Andre, and each time I have fallen fast asleep within 15 minutes.I mean it. No hyperbole. It's renders me unconcious.

D. McEwan said...

Moffett and Gatiss are both fanboy geeks for Sherlock Holmes, like myself, and it shows, to the show's benefit. Watching the first episode,I was a little miffed when Watson met "Young Stamford" in a park instead of in the Criterion Long Bar where Doyle sets the scene, having made a point of visiting thet Criterion Long Bar myself when I was in London simply because that fictional event took place there. (As a plaque on the wall there commemorates.) I hadn't noticed Stamford holding the Criterion Coffee cup in the scene, which was all the nod I needed. Later, When I rented the DVDs, and saw the original pilot, which was shot there, and heard the commentary track explanation, I was most pleased. They care about that stuff, and as I do too. It pleased me.

I have enjoyed some of Gatiss's other writing. I particularly liked his adapation of HG Wells's First Men in the Moon, which brought out much of what I love in the book that was not used in Ray Harryhausen's more kid-level movie version. I've enjoyed some of his Doctor Whos also, though his do not come up to the level of Moffett's Whos. I think Moffett's episode Blink may be the best single Doctor Who episode ever. When I look at Gatiss's obssessions and interests, they are almost all the same as mine. I suspect I'd get along with him just fine. We love the same stuff.

My Dracula was pretty darn good, if I say so myself. It was lots of fun, yet scary also. I felt that making it camp, the way the Edward Gorey production did (which I saw Jeremy Brett in here in Los Angeles) is an admission of failure. It's saying we can't scare you with this, so we won't try. We'll kid it instead. Admittedly, the Hamilton Deane script they were using is dreadful, static, musty old stuff. I played Renfield in a production of that script once, and it's just unplayable.

But I removed all camp, and insisted it be played straight and in earnest, and it worked. It helped that I had a mostly very strong cast. We had a good Dracula and a terrific Van Helsing. Our heroines were excellent, and we had a spectacular Renfield, who played it just right, as intensely sane, but wholely other-directed. (He was so much better than the Renfield I had been a decade before.)

We were saddled with a dreadful, untalented Arthur Holmwood, and I noticed halfway through the run that the character was in a scene he was not needed in, which I only noticed because I hated his acting so much, I was looking for places to cut him out.

Also our stage effects were great. When Lucy as a vampire got into her coffin and closed it, the inside flipped over, and an armless, headless dummy in an identical costume popped up. When Van Helsing opened the coffin, there was the dummy, with the actress's real head and arms poking up from below. Holmwood was able to pound the stake right through her heart, while her head screamed, her arms waved, and techies below made her fake legs and torso thrash on rods beneath it, and blood was pumped up through the tube the stake was going into. It looked completely real from the house.

Lothar said...

@404: I assume the book to be DRM-secured so Calibre will deny a conversion as it denied the conversion from BBeB to Epub I tried. Luckily enough, the Sony ebook-store allows the redownload of a book in the now used Epub-format, so I can continue reading my (bought and paid) ebooks.

Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...

Gervais' "The Office" was actually a refinement and focusing of an earlier do docuspoof..."People Like Us" on the BBC. It lasted 2 seasons and took you inside a different walk of life each time...a teacher, a photographer, a real estate agent...with the butt of most jokes being the interviewer...heard but never actually seen on camera. He was the only constant in the series...the other actors were all-new each week.

It was very subtle...took me five minutes of the first one to be sure it was a spoof...but smarter and to my mind much funnier than "The Office". Recalling the credits, I believe the creative team had a lot of the same people.

A Non-Emus said...

It bugs me that the fact that these people are on a reality show is never addressed. At least on the UK Office, it was addressed that they were on a TV show and the bit of fame that came with that. It's addressed on every reality show that becomes popular and has the same cast every season. In real life, the Modern Family would be celebrities like Snooki and the various Teen Moms. AD was definitely a mockumentary. There were a few times where they addressed the cameraman.

samanthastevens said...

I like to think of the "talking to camera" in Modern Family, as a hybrid of the "mockumentary" and the "sharing with viewer/wink wink/remove 4th wall" ala Marshall Chronicles. I don't remember a camera in Claire & Phil's bedroom.... show alternates between what is happening in the families' lives and the doc cam. This show will become a classic. A true reflection of our times, the Pritchett's, Dunphy's, Cam/Mitch, are today's Brady's, Keaton's, Huxtable's.

Jose said...

In a previous post you mentioned that shows must freelance one or two episodes a year. How does that work on shows that are written in the room? And do you know if Modern Family is written in the room?

Zach said...

American Casino
American Chopper
Airline
Blow Out

At least those four shoes existed as Workplace "documentaries" before the Office US aired.