Is Documentary Now! good? Depends on your perspective. Is it funny? I’m honestly not sure. But it is incredibly interesting, witty, and well-made, and I found myself excited to see what they would do next.
With each week/month’s fresh wave of mostly mediocre releases on Netflix streaming, it’s rare to say something truly compelling is on, inspiring conversation and debate as to whether or not it is worthwhile. Which is why columns like this one have popped up all over the Internet; we’re here to help you wade through the crap to find the gold buried within. Documentary Now! contains many hidden treasures, and it’s no surprise IFC picked the show up for a second season before the first aired.
The series is a mockumentary within a mockumentary, co-staring, co-written, and co-produced by SNL alum Fred Armisen and Bill Hader (with Seth Myers taking a producer credit). Each episode is framed by the pseudo-PBS show Documentary Now, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren no less, which provides a brief intro to the “film” featured that night. For such a short season (and only twenty-minute run times), they are able to cover a nice variety of great docs. The first is “Sandy Passage,” a clever rendition of the Maysles’ renowned Grey Gardens (1975), with Little Vivvy and Big Vivvy standing in for Big and Little Edie, the Jackie O relatives who lived in squalor. Next is a nice rib on Vice’s “guerrilla” journalists (“DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon”), and a fake documentary of the making of the fake documentary “Kunuk the Hunter”, a clever nod to the status of the first feature-length documentary Nanook of the North’s (1922) infamous staged sequences (and 1988’s Nanook Revisited). The season finale is on the Blue Jean Committee’s quick rise to soft-rock fame, based on the (also two-part) History of the Eagles (2013).
The execution of the show’s premise is genius. Some of the shots in “Blue Jean Committee” look genuinely shot on grainy 16mm footage, and the cutaways in “Sandy Passage” are taken directly from Grey Gardens. Episode four, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” is by far the most meticulous in its (re)construction; the real documentary, The Thin Blue Line (1988), was a revolution in the genre and has one of the most unique styles of any “nonfiction” film; the color scheme, score, and reenactments are all spot on.
The big catch is each episode is almost too closely modeled on a famous documentary; if you have seen the source material, you will be rewarded with a masterful imitation going over-the-top. If you aren’t an avid documentary buff, then you are missing out on the biggest joke of the show — most of it isn’t really a joke. This is where the question of funniness comes in; some episodes are amusing if you haven’t seen the work being referenced, and some aren’t. Goofy and extreme moments create some chuckles, but no punchlines in the traditional sense. These “mini-movies” are more of an homage with some playful jabbing, walking a weird line between satire, parody, and pastiche.
Hopefully, viewers will be intrigued enough to check out the original films and see why a few comedians felt compelled to make a lovingly humorous tribute to them.