A staple of both television and film, it’s no surprise the mockumentary continues to thrive even today
It sometimes seems impossible to avoid the mockumentary in everyday life. Whether it’s someone being accused of a case of accidental Brent, or the latest political scandal being perfectly summed up with a Malcolm Tucker rant from ten years ago; somehow shows like The Office and The Thick of It seem to stay forever relevant even as they age. There are numerous ways these shows always drag me back in, but I feel at the top of that list is their evergreen appeal.
From more grounded examples like Modern Family all the way to surreal vampire documentaries like What We Do in the Shadows, there is a vein of realism running through each example given the documentary form they are looking to imitate. This creates a relatability even in the most unrelatable of scenarios that I feel contributes to the mockumentaries unique appeal. Some of the most recognisable scenes now have lives of their own beyond these shows online. Infinite examples of Jim staring down the barrel of camera in the American version of The Office and other mockumentary moments can be found being used as shorthand for any number of different reactions. Not only do these moments become used as a simple reply though but also as a template for further jokes within a new context.
Many of the scenes from these shows have seen a new lease of life on platforms like TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) where they can be morphed to fit any number of scenarios. If you have spent any time scrolling, then it’s likely you may have already stumbled upon Matt Berry in What We Do in the Shadows or Cunk on Britain presenter Philomena Cunk being used as sounds for further videos. I think this may help explain why me and so many others repeatedly come back to these shows as they seem to forever be relatable to the cultural moment we are in and so are easy to engage with, even after decades in some cases. However, it feels pointless dissecting this obsession without running through some of the best examples of shows which help foster it.
This is Spinal Tap encapsulates everything great about the mockumentary by following the fictional rock band Spinal Tap on their US tour. We have all at some point sat down and watched our favourite musicians be interviewed and wondered whether their more eccentric elements are genius or idiocy. This is Spinal Tap plays with this throughout the entire film as you watch a hilarious parody of a rock band on the road. More recently, Documentary Now! starring Bill Hader and Fred Armisen has been a must for mockumentary fans. Here each episode is a standalone documentary often with inspiration from notable real documentaries. A highlight for me being Original Cast Album: Co-Op which draws from the documentary Original Cast Album: Company and follows the recording of a musical soundtrack similar to that of Sondheim’s Company as the production slowly falls apart.
This covers only half the appeal for me though as it’s hard to talk about mockumentaries without noticing the influence from Scotland. Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It as Malcolm Tucker is an all-time great comedy performance as he plays a Westminster spin doctor cleaning up after clueless MPs. And behind his performance is another Scottish comedy legend (and UofG grad) Armando Iannucci as writer and director. Mockumentaries have been a recurring style for Iannucci with shows like Veep and In the Loop often used to satirise the relationship between modern media and politics. Recently though we have also seen the end of Scot Squad, a satire of Scottish policing which featured many of the best Scottish comedy talents from the last decade writing and acting in the series. This seems to be the latest in a long line of BBC Scotland comedies to have joined the likes of Limmy’s Show and Burnistoun as essential Scottish comedy viewing.
How often I and so many others find themselves coming back to mockumentaries I think is explained in part by both their persistent relevance and the numerous examples of great shows that use this style. For a while now they have been my first port of call when at a loss for what to watch and I can’t imagine I’ll stop being a willing viewer any time soon.