Documentary Now!: Season One
Documentary Now!, its first season originally airing last Summer, takes pains to capture the feel of a long-running PBS anthology program — even enlisting Helen Mirren as the host. Her deadpan delivery follows a cheaply constructed montage which chronicles the history of documentary using flying clips from real classic films like Roger & Me and Don’t Look Back. Once the actual parody begins, even then the jokes can be so subtle — and the homages so spot-on — that if one doesn’t know the premise or notice its famous co-creators Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, one might take awhile to grasp the whole think is a lark.
It also helps that the targets are incredibly niche — in order: Grey Gardens, VICE, Nanook of the North, The Thin Blue Line, ?????, and History of the Eagles — but the humor is universal enough that even if it helps knowing the source materials, it’s not necessary. Plus, while the parodies are often thorough and brilliantly executed, they frequently shift topics within an episode. “Kunuk” starts with Nanook, but wanders through Hearts of Darkness, David O. Russell breakdown viral videos, among other things. “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” parodies nothing in particular, but may be its best offering.
“A Town..” starts with the Icelandic town of Arborg, a land so obsessed with Al Capone, they engage in an elaborate festival, complete with outlandish floats, classic cars, and at its center, a fiercely competitive look-alike contest. The three favorites for this year’s battle are self-assured annual winner Gunnar, eager, awkward Nina, and affable Iranian shopkeep Neelofar. The comedy is slow-burn, the characters so affable, the conflict so low stakes that by the time Aidy Bryant shows up as a bewildered distant Capone relative who shrugs and mouths “wtf” to the camera, it’s cathartically brilliant.
Who would even think to take on the somewhat forgotten (but remarkable) Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line, about an unfortunate stuck in jail for a crime clearly committed by a locally well-known drifter. It’s the broadest of the satires, as the police go out drinking with the obvious murderer (played by Hader) — a killer who was set off by a sign twirler and moved to frame a man for dissing his Poison cassette. Armisen, as the wrongfully accused, latches onto the lightly disturbing idiosyncrasies that did not help the real Randall Dale Adams — like eating chocolates and naming them loudly during the trial.
It’s an easy show to binge as while there’s a definite thread between the shows, they are all so drastically different, and so masterful, that they go down easy. It’s a quick three hours, and then you may be inclined to watch all the wonderful original documentaries (just click on the titles above to get links to where).
Bingeability: 8 (out of 10)
Binge in How Many Sitdowns: 1
Total Binge Time: approximately 3 hours
Best Episodes: “A Town A Gangster A Family” “The Eye Doesn’t Lie”
Watch Documentary Now! on Netflix here.