Review: Documentary Now
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Over drinks at a Saturday Night Live after party, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers were reflecting on their most recent episode. There was one sketch in particular that they couldn’t stop talking about.
The sketch in question was, “History of Punk,” a fake documentary about a British punk band whose rise to fame was cut short when the group broke up over the lead singer’s love for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it right now. You’ll thank me later.)
The sketch was the brainchild of Armisen and Meyers and had Armisen and Hader starring in it. Hader suggested that the three of them create a show that parodied famous documentaries. Fast forward two years later to August 20 2015, and Documentary Now premiered its first episode on IFC., and is just finishing up its run this week.
The series, which stars Hader (Trainwreck) and Armisen (Portlandia), spoofs acclaimed documentaries as well as the documentary style itself. The plot and characters in each episode are similar to the original but have a unique twist to them. Meyers, an executive producer and frequent writer of the show, helps to create these twists.
The show itself is presented as documentary series that is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. In honor of the landmark year, the series is airing some of the most famous and influential documentaries of all time. The host that gets to introduce all of these episodes is no other than Dame Helen Mirren herself. Yes, Helen Mirren–you read that correctly.
Maybe right now you’re wondering what to make of Documentary Now. You’re probably thinking it sounds incredibly strange, so it’s the perfect show to be on IFC, the home of offbeat comedies–and you’d be right. Here’s my chance to convince you to watch this hilariously strange and inventive show.
Admittedly, Documentary Now’s humor is not for everyone. If you aren’t familiar with the documentary being parodied, some jokes will be lost on you. That being said, non documentary buffs can enjoy the show without a doubt. Armisen and Hader’s craziness is hard not to love. It’s easy to see that the two actors are having fun, and their joy is infectious. Plus, the writing of the show is smart, which is refreshing in a time when there are so many mindless comedies around.
What’s impressive about Documentary Now is that it parodies a film genre that has little room, if any, for comedic moments. Let’s be honest, documentaries reek of seriousness. Somehow, Armisen, Hader and Meyers were able to take their unconventional humor and breathe comedic life into this style of film. In doing so, the trio created a show that is accessible, thoroughly entertaining, and cements Armisen and Hader as the kings of impressions.
With one more episode to air it’s not too late to start watching Documentary Now. Tune in to IFC this Thursday at 10pm to catch the season finale, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee.” Looks like a good one!
Below you’ll find a review for every episode that has aired so far. Spoilers not included.
- Sandy Passage
Documentary Now kicks things off with “Sandy Passage,” a spoof of the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens depicts the daily lives of two reclusive and eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy, Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie. “Sandy Passage,” meanwhile, is about an equally eccentric mother daughter duo, Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy. This is really the only change from the original. That is, until the end of the episode when things take a gruesome turn. Armisen and Hader kept me in stitches for the entire episode with their spot on impressions of the Edies. Whether or not you’ve seen Grey Gardens, “Sandy Passage” will make you laugh thanks to its zaniness and surprise ending.
- Kunuk Uncovered
The follow up, “Kunnuk Uncovered,” is based off the 1922 silent documentary, Nanook of the North. The film, which is considered the first ever feature-length documentary, follows the life of Nanook, an indigenous Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic. Although acclaimed, the documentary has been criticized due to its staging of several scenes. “Kunnuk Uncovered” is about a fake documentary that investigates these criticisms. If anyone could find comedy in a silent documentary about indigenous people it would have to be SNL alumni. There are great lines, mostly from Hader since out of the duo he is the only one with a speaking role, but also from the extras. Although smart, the episodes is slow, I felt bored in parts. If there is an episode of this series not to watch it would probably have to be this one.
- DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon
This episode sees the show take a break from spoofing famous documentaries and focus on something more modern: The Vice documentary series. This HBO program sees hipster reporters travel into dangerous countries to expose stories of war and drugs, among other things. Hader and Armisen mock the program by pretending to be hipster reporters for a Vice esque series called DRONEZ. The duo travel to Juárez, Mexico, on a mission to find El Chingon, head of an infamous a drug cartel. “The Hunt for El Chingon” definitely made up for its disappointing predecessor. This episode is a fresh take on the overdone mockery of hipsters. Also, no surprise here, Armisen can play a hipster very well. Strong writing and an overall great premise makes this episode a must watch.
- The Eye Doesn’t Lie
Written by Bill Hader and John Mulaney, the duo that brought you Saturday Night Live favorite, Stefon, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” is a parody of the 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line. The film tells the story of a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. Documentary Now changes the murder from a policeman to a sign spinner, which definitely lightens things up. Armisen plays the wrongly convicted man while Hader plays the actual criminal. Armisen shines in this episode, delivering lines that had me laughing for the next few days. The episode also heightens the already poor police work that is seen in the original, which makes for some great moments. Ultimately, another solid episode worth watching.
- A Town, a Gangster, a Festival
The second to last episode of the season explores the absurd customs surrounding an annual Al Capone Festival in Árborg, Iceland. The episode sees little of Armisen and nothing of Hader, who had scheduling conflicts. It is the inhabitants of the town that bring the episode to life, making you forget the festival and the documentary are fake. Although it might be the strangest episode of the series, it is the most accessible since it isn’t based on one specific documentary. If you’re lukewarm about the series, watching this episode just might slowly introduce you to the world that is Documentary Now.