“Getting two tickets to an execution is like getting two tickets to NASCAR, except you know Jeff Gordon's gonna die.”-Dep. T. Junior (Ben Garant)
Ever since Rob Reiner’s infamous 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap the mockumentary craze has had an influence on the movies. Ironically enough, it has taken nearly twenty years for the mockumentary aesthetic to reach television, the academically branded black sheep brother of the cinema.
However, during the past three years or so, the mockumentary style has become an increasingly utilized staple of television, especially sitcoms (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and The Office). Many of these shows are un-scripted and are founded on an aesthetic of handheld camera work and techniques that lend a degree of realism to the programming such as the rise in the comedic use of the “awkward pause”. This could possibly be attributed to the rise of reality television, a trend that documents audiences’s tastes for a touch of reality in their “fictional” programming.
Regardless, one show that has benefited from the mockumentary craze is Comedy Central’s Reno 911!, whose second season has recently been released on a three-DVD set.
Written and starring the other half of MTV’s cult program The State (the other half produced the underrated Wet Hot American Summer and the forthcoming series Stella), Reno 911! is a jewel of satire. The show began by taking on the shell of a COPS spoof but, since its first season, has evolved into a twenty-five minute piece of comedy that revolves around the many characters’s quirks. The satire is still there, but it has become more focused and confident to rely on its characters.
Much of the show’s success can be attributed to the on screen chemistry between the cast members, who include Thomas Lennon, Kerry Kenney, Ben Garant, Niecy Nash, and Cedric Yarbrough. The comedic teamwork of the cast can be seen in all stages of evolution, beginning with the first season of the show, progressing through the many deleted scenes and outtakes from the second season on the latest DVD release, and in the first two episodes of the third season, which began its run on June 14th. At first, the characters were defined as types. For example, Thomas Lennon began the show as Lt. Jim Dangle as the closeted officer in charge. However, as the show has progressed, Dangle has begun to be sketched in more detailed strokes, strokes that emerge in flashes of comic genius.
Coming into its third season, there has been the progression towards a sort of narrative thread tying these episodes together. When the show began, it was a sort of anti-narrative. The episodes within the first season are almost a different genre of sketch comedy, brief vignettes that run together for a half hour. The officers would pursue individual criminals in self-contained moments.
To the show’s benefit, midway through the first season, the show changed and a loose narrative began to dominate the episodes. Fox example, the end of the second season and beginning of the third has dealt with the imprisonment and sub sequential un-employment of the police force (which results in some hilarious cameos in the second season finale). The narrative drive has also focused the comedy into something more accessible and, for the most part, it has succeeded due to its cast and style.
Quite simply, the mockumentary aesthetic and evolution of character makes Reno 911! one of the most refreshing comedies on television.