Aw shit, ya bitch Helen Mirren back at it again! Teaming up with ch’boys Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and writer/co-executive producer Seth Meyers to bring the loving parody of the documentary boom we all crave. Documentary Now! starts its fictional 51st season tomorrow night with “The Bunker,” a goof on D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘92 Clinton campaign opus, The War Room. Written by John Mulaney, “The Bunker” was made to do two things: 1) lampoon the current anything-goes style of politicking that War Room protagonists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos may or may not have ushered in, and 2) provide an excuse for Bill Hader to bring back his Carville impression.
“The Bunker” puts Hader’s Teddy Redbones and Armisen’s “Hunk of the Beltway” Alvin Panagoulious at the head of an Ohio gubernatorial campaign for a man who’s wholly unfit for office. Redbones and Panagoulious will do anything to win the election. I don’t think it’s spoilery to say that they go to absurd lengths to win. But honestly, with this election in the background, they could have gone farther. Unscrupulous campaign managers are barely satire. The comedy comes from juxtaposing Armisen and Hader’s highly motivated monsters with a candidate who’s more focused on making sure everyone who enters his home removes their shoes than becoming governor.
In its second season, Documentary Now! is revealing its formula a little bit. The show takes a critically-acclaimed documentary and heightens it, usually either by upping the violence or the absurdity of the OG doc. But Documentary Now! works best when it brings the subtext of its source into the harsh light of text. The best episodes of season two acknowledge that a documentary is by nature one person’s point of view. You are talking the messy, discursive, sometimes-boring reality of a situation and creating a clean linear narrative. In order to present a story, a lot of people saying “yeah but” have to be silenced. Except in Documentary Now!’s take on Spalding Gray’s Swimming To Cambodia, “Location Is Everything,” where the bobo Gray’s monologue is interrupted by his girlfriend, landlord, and parents’ conflicting narrative. I’d never seen the Gray/Demme joint that was being parodied, but I still lost it when Hader went into free-associating jazz poetics, only to be interrupted by an accurate retelling of events by Lennon Parham’s girlfriend character. Swimming to Cambodia is on YouTube in its entirety (don’t tell the cops), so I acquainted myself with the source material after watching the episode. Director Rhys Thomas copied Gray’s set perfectly. The film grain looks the same, the color timing is the same. Even the sound of muffled, polite laughter from Gray’s audience sounds the same as what’s in Documentary Now! Every doc gets the same meticulous attention to detail, down to the fake production logos that begin each film.
Because each episode of Documentary Now! is by nature a standalone short film, they’re of variable quality. Some will resonate with you more than others. My personal favorite was a goof on Jiro Dreams of Sushi, called “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice.” I’m a sucker for food docs, but a rebellious flyover country part of my heart always wonders “how good can this food really be?” Sure, one exquisitely shaved flake of truffle is probably very good, exquisite even, but so are gas station nachos. “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” lampoons all the dumb rigamarole of foodie culture, but it also underscores the emotional core of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro is about a family, with a demanding taskmaster dad and a son with zero agency about what he does with his entire life. The Documentary Now! version both condenses and heightens the father/son drama of the original film while also skewering the overly serious world of haute cuisine.
That’s what good parody does: tell a story faster, with more dick jokes than the original. Due to recent events, I found myself rewatching Young Frankenstein. One of the things that makes that film great is the obvious love Brooks and Wilder have for the source material. They used the real laboratory props from the James Whale film, fer chrissakes. You can’t properly make fun of something if you’re not a little bit obsessed with it. The best episodes of Documentary Now! have that spark of obsession. The worst are still pretty funny.