Watching “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” and “Modern Family,” you have to give props to Christopher Guest.
With his mockumentary films, including “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman,” as well as “This Is Spinal Tap,” which he co-wrote, Guest defined the faux verite format that’s so popular now on TV. He found fresh wit by rejecting the scripted one-liners and the careful staging of old-school comedy, in favor of loose rhythms and character humor. Mockumentary sitcoms, with their hand-held effects, simply bring us into the presence of rare birds such as Ron Swanson of “Parks and Recreation” so that we can watch their amusing idiosyncrasies emerge.
Guest may have developed the mockumentary style under the inspiration of Woody Allen, who made the fake documentaries “Take the Money and Run” and “Zelig,” and Robert Altman, who made the political mockumentary series “Tanner ’88.” And maybe Orson Welles even played a role in the history of the genre, with his 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. But Guest has given the mockumentary his own easy-going, ensemble stamp. He is one of the many towering influences that have shaped contemporary TV. His mark can be seen on some of our most extraordinary comedy series, not just the British and American versions of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” but also, to some extent, the semi-improvised “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Lisa Kudrow’s one-season classic “The Comeback.”
All of today’s TV shows, similarly, have roots in various storytelling icons, comprising what is a massive family tree leading back and back, probably all the way to ancient myths and oral literature. The masters and innovators of narrative style — the Charles Dickenses and Robert Altmans and Christopher Guests — are influencing every corner of the small screen to this day. When you picture the Mount Rushmore of TV, you have to make room for a broad range of individuals and movements, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nora Ephron, the Surrealists, and the vaudeville stage. Every viewer probably has their own choices for inclusion, of course, chiseled into their own imaginary mountainsides.
In a recent interview with the Globe, Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of “Downton Abbey,” explained that he’d never have written the hit PBS series without the impact of Altman. He said that Altman’s love of ensemble drama with comic flourishes, and the way Altman focused more on character and interaction than plot, had a critical impact on his approach. After writing Altman’s “Gosford Park,” for which Fellowes won an Oscar, his view of narrative shifted. Altman’s impact is far more obvious, though, on a number of other shows than Fellowes’s upstairs-downstairs opus, particularly “Treme” by David Simon. “Treme” has the same interlocking short stories and minimalist arcs of some of Altman’s signature films, including “Nashville” and “Short Cuts.”
Arguably, the most present of the gods of TV are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Poe. Crime stories, many of them gruesome, are all over the nightly schedule right now, even with two of the three “Law & Order” series gone. Poe, along with Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins, was an early pioneer of crime fiction — his “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is said by some scholars to be one of the first true detective stories. Poe dove straight into the macabre possibilities of death — burial while alive, for example, in both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” There’s a direct line from Poe to TV’s grotesque homicide dramas “Criminal Minds” and the “CSI” shows, as they mine seemingly every kind of twisted death imaginable and deliver vivid images of decomposition. (Were there plushies in the 19th century? One famous “CSI” fetish murder, in the 2003 episode “Fur and Loathing,” occurred inside a raccoon fursuit.)
Conan Doyle, with his Sherlock Holmes series, is particularly visible right now, since two adaptations of his famous detective are on the air — CBS’s “Elementary” and PBS’s “Sherlock.” But Holmesian detectives have been all over TV for years, socially awkward personalities deducing the solutions to crimes. The most intensely Holmesian: The entomologist investigator Gil Grissom from “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (his last name sounds like “gruesome”), and Dr. Gregory House from “House” (his last name is an alternative to Holmes), who disentangled medical mysteries. Both were quirk-laden, astute, and forensically inclined. Likewise Temperance Brennan on “Bones,” Patrick Jane on “The Mentalist,” and Richard Castle on “Castle” — under Conan Doyle’s spell, they’ve helped turn the procedural into a massively popular genre.
Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” in my book, is up there with Sherlock as a source of a huge chunk of TV drama — the sci-fi serials that the networks have been trying in the past decade. Almost all of the “mythology” series that have sprung up since “The X Files” and “Lost” are spiritual cousins to the stories that Serling curated, adapted, and popularized for his show. You can see the themes that interested Serling — wariness of science, the mysteriousness of time, the animal instinct beneath the surface of ordinary people — on “Person of Interest,” “Revolution,” and “Fringe,” as well as “FlashForward,” “V,” “Terra Nova,” and “The Event.” All of these shows have precedents, either directly or indirectly, in episodes of the 1959-1964 classic. On the “Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” for example, just as on “Revolution,” people are thrown into desperation and aggression when the power mysteriously goes out.
Dickens, of course, is inevitable in any conversation about the origins of today’s TV storytelling. He was among the first to write and publish his novels episodically, with regular cliffhangers and coincidences, as do most TV writers; and then he wound up with a completed novel with cohesive plots and subplots — that would be the DVD box set. He had a sentimental streak, certainly, but his stories were set among the hard inequities of society, where poverty and lack of education doomed people from birth. That’s why “The Wire” has been compared to Dickens so often, as both use fiction to explore institutionalized oppression. But shows as far-flung as “Oz,” with its view inside prison, and “Downton Abbey,” with its look at the relationship between the rich and the labor class, are also indebted to the master.
Oddly enough, one of the towers of the contemporary sitcom could well be the late Nora Ephron. With her movie “When Harry Met Sally,” for which she was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, she defined what is now the most common trope on American TV comedies. In nearly every ensemble of single characters, from “Friends” to “How I Met Your Mother” and “Happy Endings,” men and women are struggling to be platonic friends — and not succeeding. Obviously, Ephron did not invent romantic tension between friends, but she made it fodder for years and years of will-they-or-won’t-they TV.
Ephron exerts a subtle influence on sitcoms; vaudeville, not so much. A thick line goes straight from the brash entertainment of vaudeville, with its circus-like atmosphere, fast pace, rowdy tone, and mass-audience appeal, to the multi-camera sitcoms of today. With its crude yuks and machine-gun tempo, for instance, “2 Broke Girls” descends directly from the form, which thrived at the turn of the 20th century and provided a start for the likes of Fanny Brice, Bert Lahr, and Bill Robinson. “Malibu Country,” “Last Man Standing,” and all of the original sitcoms on TBS and TV Land — thanks, vaudeville.
In the past decade or two, TV comedy has relied more and more on single-camera stylings, without the need to keep live audiences giddy with one-liner-driven laughter. That’s where Surrealism — the first “Surrealist Manifesto” was written by Andre Breton — comes into the picture. Sitcoms such as “30 Rock,” “Happy Endings,” and, in the recent past, “Scrubs” have taken the fantasy sequences that David E. Kelley pioneered on “Ally McBeal” — remember the dancing baby? — and run with them. These sudden, brief flashes break from the conventional narrative and bring us inside characters’ consciousnesses. When a character feels like a deer in the headlights, we actually see that deer and those headlights. The metaphors become visible. These flights are especially common on animated comedies such as “Family Guy,” where the laws of gravity and sequencing are particularly easy to defy.
Who else? With the advent of the musical series “Glee,” “Smash,” and “Nashville,” the towers of drama could include “Show Boat,” which has been credited as the first musical with a dramatic emphasis. And reality TV reaches back to Allen Funt, whose “Candid Camera” popularized the use of hidden cameras perched over staged situations that are meant to make viewers laugh at others. Funt is certainly one of the godfathers of reality TV, although some might prefer to look back to something more primitive: The ancient gladiatorial games.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.