If you are a person who has an encyclopedic knowledge of documentary film and has been anxiously awaiting a solid Errol Morris parody to hit the (sort of) mainstream, you are in luck: IFC’s niche-y, meticulously detailed Documentary Now! is the ode to the genre you’ve been waiting for.
But I am not that person, and I am also in luck, because Documentary Now! is also the documentary parody series I didn’t know I wanted. IFC seems confident that I am not alone in this — before the first episode even aired, the show was picked up for second and third seasons.
In each episode, creators and SNL comrades-in-arms Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas affectionately satirize a different iconic documentary (Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, the entire Vice News macho-hipster-whiskey-plaid milieu). Because they are all installments in the fake 50th season of the fake PBS documentary retrospective, they are all introduced with tremendous gravitas by a very dignified Helen Mirren wearing a very dignified asymmetrical neckline. Every show – in a panel hosted by The Atlantic, Armisen suggested that they’re not “mockumentaries” so much as “celebrations” of the form, so we’ll go with that – stars Armisen and Hader (Meyers writes many, though not all of them, and Thomas directs with Alexander Buono) plus or minus various guests (John Slattery, Jack Black, and Aidy Bryant, among others).
But while the episodes are all mocking/celebrating something different, they are united by their extreme specificity. Each installment references its source material with the surgical precision of, I don’t know, surgery, or perhaps pairs figure skating: if you had any doubt that the satire is affectionate, here is the evidence. These guys really, really like documentaries.
Much of the early coverage of the show — show? project? cultural artifact? — has focused on whether it will appeal to people who won’t appreciate these surgically precise references, which fuel the majority of the show’s jokes. If you have not, for example, seen Nanook of the North — a 1922 ethnographic film that focuses on the daily life of an Inuit man — and you are not familiar with its controversial history (it was largely staged), and you do not remember the Nanook-hears-a-gramophone sequence or the walrus hunt, will “Kunuk Uncovered” — a meta-mockumentary chronicling the making of the excellently fake “Kunuk the Hunter” (a silent Armisen in a parka) — still be funny? As a person who had not, in fact, seen Nanook of the North until after “Kunuk,” I feel qualified to say that, yes, it’s still funny.
Each episode’s world is so fully realized, and Armisen’s and Hader’s performances are so unexpectedly human, that even if you don’t get a single reference — and, in the case of the late-season episode inspired by Hollywood, a 13-part documentary series about the foundation of the studio system, here transposed onto an Icelandic Al Capone festival, I did not — the show is still delightful, not as parody, but as earnest documentation of a world that just happens not to exist.
To be clear, though, it’s better when you get the jokes. And while the jokes do, in general, require some vague sense of the source material, Documentary Now! works best when the source material isn’t the bulk of the joke.
“Sandy Passage,” Documentary Now’s answer to Grey Gardens, illustrates what happens when it is. Armisen and Hader are Big and Little Vivvy (respectively), and like the Edies of the 1975 original, Big and Little Vivvy are a mother-daughter pair of eccentric recluses living in a crumbling estate, the human equivalents of Miss Havisham’s cake. On the surface, this seems ripe for parody (old ladies! cats!), but despite a virtuosic performance from a soulful Hader, “Sandy Passage” doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Their mission seems to be to take the unsettling weirdness of the real Grey Gardens and make it even weirder and even more explicitly sinister, which, though sometimes very funny, is also relatively limited: there’s kind of only one place to go if your plan is to heighten Grey Gardens, and “Sandy Passage” goes there. The upside, though, is that now we’ve all seen Hader as Little Vivvy and, in this way, our time has been well spent.
But with “Kunuk,” you can see the possible heights of where the show can go: the content is only part of the joke. The other part is our collective appetite for it. In both “Kunuk” and the subsequent mock Vice News hard-hitting investigation of a Mexican drug kingpin in “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” the filmmaking process becomes the target, and the filmmakers’ racist, fraudulent, amoral, and/or bumbling attempts to capture “realism and truth” is the fundamental punchline (“Those words meant a great deal to me,” muses Hader as Kunuk cameraman Barnabas Scott). The John Mulaney-written Thin Blue Line parody, meanwhile, deconstructs Errol Morris’s trademarks to hilariously indict the rest of us. It’s not that a slow-motion shot of a falling Creamsicle hitting the eerily moonlit pavement to a Philip Glassian score is inherently hilarious (though that, too), but rather the fact that, even divorced from actual content, we are so compelled by it.
On one level, Documentary Now! is overwhelmingly formulaic, in that there is literally a formula. But, like sports — I think? — that is the pleasure of it: the challenge is clear from the moment Helen Mirren gravely announces the week’s program, and the question is what they’re going to do with it, and the answer is usually better than whatever you thought. (Also highly recommended: Nanook of the North.)