Review: Documentary Now!

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Collection Womyn In Film & TV

Female film and TV reviewers are still underrepresented in the media. Less than 20 percent of Rotten Tomatoes reviews are written by women. We encourage you to go and write your own kick ass reviews! This review is written by one of our writers, Jillian Richardson.

Despite what the title implies, straight-laced history buffs should steer clear of Documentary Now!. Comedy lovers, however, should flock to it. IFC’s latest series, produced by Seth Meyers, has taken the documentary form and spoofed everything about it. No sub-genre is safe, from “the rise and fall of X band” to Vice-style videos. Even better, every episode has an unexpected twist. Ever wondered what Grey Gardens would look like as a horror movie? Well, now you can find out.

Yet the best part of Documentary Now! isn’t the subject matter-- it’s the cast. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, who starred together on SNL, dominate the program. Really. The two play almost every character on the show. But if you don’t think they can handle it, check out the listicle on Documentary Now!’s very self-aware website, entitled “10 SNL Sketches That Prove That Bill Hader and Fred Armisen Are Hilarious Together.” Spoiler alert: they are.

If the comedy duo’s success on SNL is any indicator, this show will have a cult following by the end of its first season. It doesn’t hurt that the show boasts guest stars like Aidy Bryant, Jack Black, and Ty Dolla Sign. Yes, you read that last one right. Helen Mirren even steps off her Damely pedestal for a few moments to join in the fun. With that kind of star power, Documentary Now! is a shoe-in for another season– even if it ends up being a pile of TV garbage. Thankfully, the show is anything but.

Highlights from the show include a perfect imitation of Little Edie’s uncomfortable flag dance from Grey Gardens, an insane trail mix fight during a police interrogation, and two up-and-coming musicians being attacked by Chicagoans because they went vegetarian. Yet the show’s most shining episode is “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chignon,” which parodies reports from the hipster media empire, Vice.

In a time where investigative reporting is being overtaken by viral video journalism, “DRONEZ” shines in its satire. Not only are the fake company’s privileged white reporters ridiculously confident in their ability to get inside the Mexican drug trade, but they also don’t give a fuck that they have done zero research. And don’t speak Spanish. Yet, in true comedic fashion, the episode takes a delightful twist when the two idiotic reporters get a better story than a New York Times journalist: “How did we find El Chignon? The same way they found Bin Laden. We went to the biggest house, and knocked on the front door.”

Some might argue that the very limited cast of Documentary Now! is prohibitive. Yet the character acting talents of Hader and Armisen should not be underestimated. They can play aging, insane women just as well as they can transform into stoned former rockstars. That being said, it can be jarring-- and confusing-- to see two men playing so many characters in one episode. For example, in “DRONEZ,” the reporters played by Hader and Armisen die, voiceover the rest of the episode, and then come back as different reporters. And then they die, and return to play new journalists yet again. While a lot of the humor in the episode comes from the fact that their various characters look almost identical-- and are all equally stupid-- the frequent reincarnations make the episode too complicated, and detract from the reality of documentary that it is trying to spoof.

In addition, some of the jokes in the show are a little too ridiculous and go for a cheap laugh, rather than lampooning actual documentary tropes. License plates are labeled “I <3 Puss” and teachers show five year olds how to smoke a cigar. This goofiness might have to do with the fact that the last project that Meyers, the show’s executive producer, worked on was an animated series, The Awesomes. That program had the right to do anything because, you know, it’s animated. In the earlier episodes of Documentary Now!, Meyers should remember that he’s trying to reproduce the documentary style, albeit in parody. Yet even when the show does hit the nail on the head, the subtle, style-based jokes can fly over the head of anyone who isn’t already a film student or a true lover of documentaries.

All in all, Documentary Now! is one of the most original shows on air. So, if you want zero information, but lots of laughs, then head to your nearest IFC provider to get your mockumentary fix.

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