Idiot Box: “Documentary Now!”

“Documentary Now!” On Ifc

Devin D. O'Leary
3 min read
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There have been some wonderfully amusing fake documentaries over the years—a great many of them perpetrated by Christopher Guest and his pals (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind). Few of these comic “mockumentaries,” however, have gotten down to the dirty business of lampooning the actual genre they’re imitating. Why not? Documentaries have become an important part of today’s entertainment industry; don’t they deserve some tweaking? We’ve had Scary Movie and Date Movie and Disaster Movie. Why not Michael Moore Movie? IFC tries to rectify that oversight with the introduction of “Documentary Now!”

The scripted comedy series solemnly presents select episodes of a fake PBS-style documentary show that has allegedly been airing on television for some 50 years. No less a figure than Helen Mirren introduces the episodes in hushed, public television-style tones. Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”), Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live”) and Seth Meyers (“Late Night with Seth Meyers”) are the learned jokers behind this faux-serious series. The goal is to ape the style of various documentaries, and “Documentary Now!” more than delivers with the kind of well-observed jabs that only true, reverent fans can produce.

The show’s first season starts off with a pitch-perfect recreation of the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary
Grey Gardens. That film, which became a cult sensation, captures the lives of distant Jacqueline Kennedy relatives Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale. The pair lived a bizarrely hermetic life in a decaying East Hampton mansion. In the pilot ep for “Documentary Now!” (titled “Sandy Passage”), Armisen and Hader take on the roles of two dotty, aged socialites—near mirrors of the Beale women. The camera work, cinematography, editing and dialogue all match Grey Gardens to a T. But “Documentary Now!” takes the storyline directly into the sort of creepy, B-movie horror flick Grey Gardens always threatened to become, but never did.

Obviously, “Documentary Now!” is considerably funnier if you’re familiar with the source material. You could watch the pilot having never seen the Maysles brothers’ film. And you might be slightly amused. But to truly appreciate it, you’ve got to know the material—which the producers clearly do. This isn’t broad, joke-based, punchline-fueled comedy. It’s pointed, straight-faced, lovingly created satire. That means, of course, that it’s not going to be for every taste. Those looking for loose, “Saturday Night Live”-style character sketches are going to be … confused, most likely.

Over the course of the first season, “Documentary Now!” will tackle a number of different documentary types including the dangerous, self-indulgent world of
VICE magazine’s gonzo journalism and a riff on Robert J. Flaherty’s stodgy proto-documentary Nanook of the North. Admirers of those films willing to laugh at the conventions they established are the ones most likely to find the inside-jokey world of “Documentary Now!” brilliantly fake.

“Documentary Now!” airs Thursdays at 8pm on IFC.

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