Sunday, October 16, 2016
"Documentary Now!" Review through Season 2 Episode 5
While the premise's novelty-- re-imagining popular documentaries with a comic bent -- was enough to get it through the first season, the show usually sinks or swims based on how funny the episode is.
With the exception of Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Morgan Spurlock, or Werner Herzog, very few documentaries have ever surfaced to the national consciousness. As a result, many viewers (including myself) are not going to go to know of the original source either, so the comedy often has to stand on its own in a way that most direct parodies don't.
Despite these challenges, co-producers Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers and BIll Hader do an admirable job of working comic magic out of wayward references.
"The Town, A Gangster, a Festival" approaches the brilliance of Christopher Guest's films (what I'm sure is an influence on these guys) in terms of attention to detail. A whole world is colored in by oodles and oodles of funny characters. This should cater to the wheelhouse of a writing staff-- all SNL alumni -- where creating characters who can display a memorable quirk within a minute or two of screen time is a prerequisite.
Without the advantage of the large ensemble format, the show faces a harder challenge with generally only two people front and center. The show can sometimes work brilliance here but some episodes have also fallen flat. Among the most brilliant entries are "Kunuk Now" and "Globesman" as both are hilarious based on stand-alone comic characters and broad reference(the primitive Eskimo in the former, the 1950s image of masculinity and the corporate salesman in the latter) rather than a specific cinematic style. "Kunuk Now" tells the story of a kooky producer who jumps production in Alaska and an intellectually-challenged Eskimo who single-handedly creates all our modern ideas of cinematography. "Globesman" takes the squeaky clean image of the 1950's and turns it into a portrait of sheer obnoxiousness.
Among the other episodes that work somewhat well, "The Blue Jean Committee" is an exaggerated character portrait of two men whose lives have gone in opposite directions since fame. It distinguishes itself by being perhaps the only episode in the series with sentimental value (the final hug between the two tugged at my heart strings). Armisen is a music obsessive and his effort falls flat in the similarly themed second season episode "Test Pattern" which feels derivative: It mines similar nuances of "Blue Jean Committee" in mining similar nuances of concert culture without giving us a reason to care.
"Dronez" also roughly works without any source material as it provides a never-ending supply of dumb people and juxtaposes them with an incredibly dangerous situation.
Others like "Juan Likes Rice and Beans" and "The War Room" are middling: They work based on the hyper-specific which will vary. In the case of the former, I saw "Jiro Likes Sushi" which helped me enjoy it at a fuller level.
The rest of the episodes, including the series premiere, fall painfully flat based on hyper-specificity. But that's the risk one takes when they follow their passion and there's a lot to admire by how often they succeed..