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August 14, 2020

Documentary Now! thrives on absurdity

By SARAH SCHREIB | April 7, 2016


GAGE SKIDMORE/CC-by-SA-2.0 SNL alumnus Bill Hader was one of the creators of Documentary Now!, which premiered in August 2015.

After premiering on IFC last year, Documentary Now!, a seven-episode parody of documentary filmmaking, has come to Netflix. The series, created by Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Rhys Thomas — all past or current cast members of Saturday Night Live — presents six different “documentaries,” each approximately 20 minutes long, which are introduced by a refined Helen Mirren. Each episode portrays a different style of documentary, and each is unnerving and comical in its own way.

The first episode, titled “Sandy Passage,” is a parody of Grey Gardens, a 1975 documentary about an elderly mother and middle-aged daughter both named Edith, who live in a filthy old mansion in East Hampton. In the Documentary Now! version, the mother and daughter are both named Vivvy, with Big Vivvy played by Armisen and Little Vivvy played by Hader.

This episode is one of the best in the series, especially because of Armisen and Hader’s incredible impersonation skills. The two perfectly capture the aloof absurdity of the original duo as they dance around the house, start new fashion trends (such as a pair of sweatpants worn as a head scarf) and shout nonsense.

The famous scene of Little Edie dancing around the house with an American flag is included in the parody, although it concludes with Little Vivvy falling through the floor and onto a plate of Big Vivvy’s lima beans.

This episode also parallels the original documentary with its muted color palate and close-up shots of random items around the disheveled home.

However, it soon digresses from the original story as dark secrets from the Vivvys’ past arise and the filmmakers themselves (the Fein brothers) attempt to solve the mystery.

The next episode, “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” parodies the style of Vice, a news channel known for placing its reporters in extreme conditions and locations. In this episode, Armisen and Hader each play three different hipster journalists from the channel “Dronez” who are assigned to investigate the whereabouts of “El Chigon,” a Mexican drug dealer.

Each pair of journalists is killed off in the process, forcing the head of Dronez (played by Jack Black) to send in the next round of journalists.

The actions of the journalists, which completely disregard the local language and customs, perfectly comment on the intrusive nature of those who fail to do proper research before entering a community. In addition to the social commentary is a goofy, slapstick storyline complete with massive explosions, dead bodies in barrels and mountains of cocaine.

Following “DRONEZ” is “Kunuk Uncovered,” which exposes the truth behind a 1920s filmmaker’s encounter with an Eskimo named Pipilock (Armisen), who he tries to turn into a subject for his film. The events that transpire, which involve Pipilock being tied to a sled and posed to look like a brave hunter, comment on the sometimes fabricated nature of documenting “real life.”

The episode’s best moments involve the discovery that Pipilock — who later declares his name to be “Kunuk” — is much more unbalanced than the filmmakers had previously thought.

Hader’s role as the assistant recounting his years spent on the film is just as hilarious as the black-and-white footage of the filming process.

“The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” the fourth episode in the series, is an in-depth look at an investigation during which a man was falsely accused of murdering a “sign spinner” on a city street in Texas in 1986. The joke of the episode centers around the idea that the man accused (Armisen) is so unlikable that everyone involved in the case, from the police to the prosecutors to his own lawyers, are willing to overlook evidence to lock him away.

Armisen is unbearably unlikable in this role. He complains about restaurant quality and annoys the jury by guessing the contents of a box of chocolates during the trial.

Not even blatant evidence, like the fact that his hand (which would have been used to pull the trigger) is permanently asleep or that he had two credible alibis, can save him. One witness is convinced he saw a certain license plate the night of the murder, prompting one of the prosecutors to say, “If you’re memory is confused, we can give it a little nudge.”

While this may sound like cruel commentary on corruption within the legal system (and it is), audiences are given enough of a reason to be on the side of the prosecutors.

The fifth episode, “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” presents a town in Iceland that holds a yearly celebration of Al Capone. The celebration is comprised of reenactments, a look-alike contest and young students learning about cigars and Tommy guns in class.

While this episode does not have as many standout moments as the others, it certainly lives up to the series’ standard level of absurd comedy, particularly in its stereotyping of Icelandic people.

The final “documentary” of the series is one titled “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” which is told across two different episodes. It is the story of two men, Gene Allen (Armisen) and Clark Honus (Hader), who meet in sausage school and go on to form the fleeting California band Blue Jean Collective.

The first part begins with interviews from Allen and Honus decades after the success of their music careers. While Honus is shown in his secluded mansion, Allen is seen working in a meat factory. This juxtaposition is the basis for a lot of humor in the episode.

This episode fully commits to the narratives of the characters with footage of band members performing for crowds and pictures from throughout their lives. Interviews by celebrities like Cameron Crowe, Daryl Hall and the sister band HAIM further “authenticate” the parody.

IFC has already renewed Documentary Now! for a second season, although no release date has been announced yet.

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