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.Continued...