'Documentary Now!' a ridiculously wonderful anthology of doc parodies
I mean no disrespect — if anything, I mean respect — when I say that it is only the established star power of on-screen creators Fred Armisen and Bill Hader and off-camera co-creator Seth Meyers that could make a show like "Documentary Now!" a reality.
The series, whose six-episode season begins Thursday on IFC, is an anthology of affectionate, informed parodies of documentary styles and films, framed as a 50th anniversary celebration of landmark works from a fictional public-broadcasting program. (Your host: Helen Mirren.) The references range from Robert Flaherty's genre-defining "Nanook of the North," to a nostalgia-tinged rock doc, to the contemporary quick-cut, split-screen, graphics-happy, globe-trotting hipster journalism purveyed by Vice.
Even given the occasional raised profile of documentary film, as when "The Jinx" took over the world recently, there is something unlikely about this show — a show for geeks, by geeks.
And yet, as specific as the humor can be — there are jokes about Janus Films, "The Great Train Robbery" and craft services — it's also a framework for slapstick and dress-up, and an occasion for Armisen and Hader, old "Saturday Night Live" castmates, to work together in a double act. Their types are classically complementary. Hader is an all-American boy off the Great Plains who disappears into his characters, where Armisen's oddness shines through whomever he's playing. Even at rest, their pairing seems like a bottle you don't want to shake. They are clearly enjoying themselves.
Three episodes were offered for review, two of which have already been made available online. (The series has also already been renewed.) "Sandy Passage," which kicks off the televised series, begins by taking off on Albert and David Maysles' 1975 "Grey Gardens"; focusing on an eccentric mother and daughter sharing a tumbledown New England house with cats and critters and the detritus of disappointment, it mixes in a little bit of "Psycho" and "The Blair Witch Project" before it's done.
The humor has as much to do with the form as the content, and much care and cleverness have been devoted to making these pieces look right, from film stock and lighting, to period graphics, to furniture and clothing; the art direction is exceptional, and as such, delightful throughout.
Likewise, the subject of the Vice-themed episode, "Dronez: The Hunt for El ... ," is not the Mexican drug trade but the new-media "participatory" reporters covering it. (Vice is among the platforms previewing the episode online.) "Uncovering Kuluk" is supposedly a 1985 documentary about a 1922 documentary, the Arctic-life, "Nanook"-like "Kuluk the Hunter," and the circumstances of its making spool out into an extended joke about Hollywood filmmaking.
The ideas are clear enough that any of these episodes might have fit comfortably into the space of an "SNL" short — series directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono have also made those — but the re-creations are so perfectly done that it's nice to have the room to revel. You can feel the care and love that went into every ridiculous frame.