In the first three episodes of Documentary Now!, the new comedy series from Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers, the creators and filmmakers behind the series brandish a remarkably attentive eye toward documentary as a style first and foremost. In the opening salvo, “Sandy Passage,” a parody of the Maysles brothers’ classic Grey Gardens, the look of the episode has a similar amount of grain to the image and looseness to the camera movement as its source material, even as the narrative conflates the tale of Jackie Onassis’ eccentric relatives and the modern boom of thoughtless found-footage horror films. The show ultimately looks at once to serve as an ode to the style of great documentaries and a lampooning of the lunacy or pomposity of the subjects and, often enough, their directors. For cinephiles, it’s a feast of sight gags, tailored deliveries and impersonations, and thoughtful gesticulations of character, infused with a deep love for documentaries and the cinema in general.
The only hiccup here is that the fidelity to the source material, the desire to sharpen impersonations of well-known directors, subjects, and archetypes, diminishes the originality of Armisen and Hader, two of the funniest comedians to come out of Saturday Night Live‘s post-90s boom. Rather than giving full breadth to their own comedic sensibilities and abilities, the two comedians, along with guest stars like Jack Black and John Slattery, to name just two, adhere to an amusing but not quite guffaw-inducing strain of absurdist mimicking. As continuously clever and openly satirical as the show is when it, for instance, retools a Vice special as a report from Dronez (motto: “Ballz to the Wallz”), the premise in effect limits the clear abilities of its performers. The end result is that, more times than not, the adroit writing and perspective of the parody outweighs what the camera and actors are doing with the material.
In “Kanuk Uncovered,” the third episode, Hader, under a Jackass-type old-man prosthetics, does an initially uproarious performance as an elderly cinematographer, who reminisces on shooting two versions Kanuk the Hunter, a take-off of Nanook of the North. There are a few laughs amongst the tale, but as soon as the central jokes of the episode — the racism, opportunism, egomania, and ultimately brilliance of filmmakers — has been relayed, the routine becomes something that you simply smile at. That isn’t entirely a dig (not many things are genuinely smile-worthy), but the series feels like less of a laboratory for comic ideas and filmic experiments than an expert workshop for vocal and physical impressions. As the weekly introduction by Helen Mirren would suggest, Documentary Now! has plenty of class and character, but its missing a drop of unbridled mania that allows the laughs to lead the story, rather than the other way around.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism