There exists a certain breed of documentary that does not make the world a better place. Its spiritual forefathers are sensationalist tabloid programs like America’s Most Wanted and junk news shows like the old A Current Affair and Hard Copy. As I type this, my father is in the other room watching one on The Discovery Channel, which should be ashamed of itself. In the aftermath of the collision of those two passenger jets into the WTC (I refuse to say 9-11: tragedy should never have a brand name), they have come to occupy a prominent position in our sorry media. Like the previously mentioned shows, they exist not to change public opinion, but to inspire complacency, to show them things they are expected to consider cool, and along the way to cheer for the People They Are Supposed To Like, and boo the People We Deem Worthy Of Hatred. In this particular documentary, these people presented as likable are CIA agents and Green Berets, folk with codenames like (to use a specific example) "Umpire" and who are referred to ostentatiously by their full names, like (no offense to the real person) “Mark-Wayne Johnson,” always with that certain vocal edge provided by our omniscient narrator. So I’m one level more upset, even than usual.
Instead of tearing into this lurid form of cultural reinforcement, I will content myself with a list of their identifying characteristics.
The background music. In a “real” documentary, there is either no background music, or music that doesn’t underlie the action, serving as chapter headings, background to montage, or other, non-pervasive uses. It never has that no-name, ten-minutes-on-an-iMac, wave-table synthesis techno sound that many trash documentaries have. In fact, unless it is about techno itself, be wary of anything presenting itself as truth that sounds like techno. Offending instruments include anything percussion. Watch, too, for big, airy, bass or white noise background sounds that I can reproduce well with my mouth but cannot type easily. When the focus is some sort of modern-day, Tom Clancy military organization, or an even-more-modern day quasi-military group, you can expect to hear many of them. They sound a little like: "BUSSSSSsshhhhhh." Also you can expect a few high-pitched, sort of off-key eagle-like noises that sound as if they were a day-old scream left to spoil in the sun. I can best reproduce them with "CHEYIEEEnneeeyyyyyyy...." And: moaning female vocals, cymbals, electric guitar, and anything that sounds like it came from a trailer for This Summer’s Must See Big Budget Gaping Bullet Wound.
Overly-dramatic narrators. If the narrator sounds like he’s getting into the action, then beware. If everything he reads sounds like it was headed in the script by stage direction: (bad-ass), then you’re probably better off switching to CNN. Any consonant that can carry any sort of bite, will. Sometimes even the interviewees sound like they’ve been given voice coaching. Sometimes the narrator will mention something irrelevant to the story but is supposed to sound cool, like (again to take from the specific example to which I’m still being exposed), "In the intercepted transmission one thing stood out, referred to by the word... Darkstar." Operation names are often subjects for this: my example has one "Operation Frypan." It’s a much more sensible operation name than something cooked up for P.R. purposes, but any points it got with me for its utilitarian principles get subtracted from the way the narrator says it. "By the name of Operation Frypan." Code names are also frequently made much of. "Code name: Rear Echelon." (That is not a sodomy joke. Er, or at least, it‘s not my sodomy joke.)
Jargon. If you will allow me the partial reuse of one joke, I’ll say that this thing is written by Tom-Clancy-heads, for Tom-Clancy-heads. (Although, it should be emphasized, trash documentaries don’t have to be military in nature.) Insertion points! (Where the damn guy is put.) Weapon systems! (He’s talking about a gun.) Ordnance! (Things that exist by me for the sole purpose of making your things explode. And interestingly, it’s plural.)
Dramatic reenactments, either presented as such or not. In my example, the reenactments are not labeled, probably because it would be ludicrous to film the actual thing, though I wonder how many viewers are cognizant of this. Stealing a glance at the screen a while ago, I caught a few seconds of the inside of a Strangeloveian CIA "war room" kind of place, complete with a bluescreened-in monitor image that flickered along with little Star Treky computer chirp noises! I can’t make this crap up, guys. Another reenactment shows a typically Nordic blond man in a robe in the desert undercover among Arabs, while the narrator intones about the importance that he not be discovered! Dude, he looks like he’s fresh off the set of Beverly Hills 90210! The people who speak in these reenactments behave in ways that real people, who typically have no dramatic training, never would. I call it America’s Most Syndrome. People look at each other with meaningful glances, which despite the soul-window nature of the eyes, seem to only ever contain two emotions: "I love you!" and "Oh crap." This documentary’s motto is "Make crap, not love," so I’ll let you guess which emotion is being broadcast here. Even the Awful Plane Crashes themselves didn’t have this much drama, because drama is just a theatrical language. When something tragic happens in real life, there’s too much chatter, misdirection, thinkings of "Hell, what do I do now?" and confusion to behave dramatically. Anyone behaving like an action movie star in the midst of cataclysm should be caught and questioned thoroughly and then more thoroughly.
Tense. A documentary should not use present tense to describe events long past, even from the documentary’s own frame of reference. That’s just goofy.
Finally, the acid test. If there’s any question (and after a while of doing this, you’ll find that there never is), ask yourself this:
Could the documentary, without a great stretch of tone, mood or style, conceivably start talking about Satanic messages recorded backwards in rock music?