Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Returning to IFC this fall is one of the most peculiar, inventive comedies on TV, the veritable documentary spoof factory Documentary Now! Created by SNL MVPs Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and their ever-loving godfather Lorne Michaels, the show found its niche on the “always on, slightly off” cable network by spoofing some of the most popular documentaries of all time, appealing to the indie-minded set while providing enough surface-level humor to appease fans of their famous late-night shenanigans. The show’s first season goofed on classics like The Thin Blue Line, Grey Gardens and Nanook of the North, and now the comedy triumvirate is back with a new lineup of 20-minute spoofs.
The new one-off episodes each have unique charms, from “Globesman,” a take on Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman, to “Bunker,” a timely homage (considering the current political climate) to D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ War Room. “Homage” is as apt a word as any to emblemize Documentary Now!; the comedians are clearly fans and admirers of the films and documentarians that inspire the show, with each episode mimicking the cinematic style of the source material with startling accuracy.
It’s both hilarious and impressive how precisely “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” captures the essence of its inspiration, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The episode plays with the imagery and themes of the trendsetting original film, and while a lot of it is played for laughs (a slow-mo beauty shot of a scoop of rice with a dollop of butter on top is clearly poking fun at the deceptive simplicity of sushi and sashimi) the SNL gang make sure there’s a compelling story that unfolds rather than a loosely connected succession of gags. There’s even the occasional flash of real emotion, which gives the show some added texture.
The bread and butter, however, is the comedy, which is mostly successful but is occasionally too reliant on the viewer’s knowledge of the sent-up classics. The granular details of the production design on “Globesman” will undoubtedly be lost on those who aren’t familiar with the Maysles brothers’ work and, frankly, those are the best bits. Some episodes gel better, however. “Location is Everything,” in which Bill Hader does an uncanny impersonation of monologuist Spalding Gray, the unforgettable subject of Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia, is more overtly funny and caters to Hader’s natural talents in a sketch environment.
“Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” is the best of the bunch, with its greatest strength being the creators’ commitment to making the spoof look as slick and authentic as Jiro, despite the inherent silliness of the endeavor. Armisen plays the son Juan, the fabled Colombian village restauranteur from the title, the Portlandia star speaking perfect Spanish the entire time. The performance evokes laughs to be sure, but Armisen actually plays the role completely straight, never going for a cheap gag or winking at the camera.
Armisen and Hader stretch their performance muscles more than they ever had on SNL, mostly because they’re given more time in these elevated, elongated skits to flesh their characters out and paint compelling narrative arcs. Their versions of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville in “Bunker” are manic and entertaining, but their talents as actors are so sharp and fully realized that it makes for a more engrossing and lived-in experience than one might expect.
This, however, is a double-edged sword: Documentary Now! is made with love and care and will be a delight for Criterion Collection devotees and Hader and Armisen’s fans, but the material may be too rich to appeal to wider audiences, people who’ve never heard of the Demmes and Maysles of the world. The first season didn’t attract the ratings one might expect considering the actors’ star power, but perhaps the presence of Helen Mirren, who returns to the series introduce each episode, is the hook that will snatch the attention of Netflix binge-watchers in the long run.
Documentary Now! returns with smart, well-crafted spoofs that appeal to the arthouse set but may not find such success with those unfamiliar with the source material.