I Researched “Documentary Now!” So You Don’t Have To

If you’re a “Portlandia” fan, you’ve probably seen countless tweets this summer anticipating the release of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s latest collaboration. “Documentary Now!” premiered on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) on August 20, and it’s breathing new, deadpan-yet-wacky life into some of the most iconic documentaries ever made.

Like “Portlandia,” the show is delivered in 30-minute episodes that begin with a simple premise–a closely observed recreation of a famous documentary film. But, gradually, things begin to spin out of control, operating as uncanny mirror images that reflect the original films with all of their flaws and oddities magnified.

The episodes derive their power from director Rhys Thomas’ ability to imitate other movies, selecting the precise lenses and film quality of the originals. “The jokes are in the details,” The Atlantic noted, which Thomas “makes sure to get…exactly right.”  

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For example, the first episode riffed on “Grey Gardens,” Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 film about a deeply eccentric mother and daughter who reclusively occupied a crumbling mansion in East Hampton. Widely considered a classic, the movie was adapted as an Emmy award-winning TV movie on HBO in 2009 and added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2010. (You can watch it on YouTube if you’re in the mood to see women singing, eating ice cream, and living among heaps of cats and raccoons.)

[Spoiler alert] But, warped through “Documentary Now!”’s odd humor, “Grey Gardens” becomes “Sandy Passage,” incrementally blossoming into what feels like a low budget horror film complete with moments of legitimately chilling suspense and gore.

Similarly, the second episode reimagined “Nanook of the North” (1922) as “Kunuk Uncovered.” In addition to a lot of shots of Fred Armisen batting his eyelashes (I’m not sure why that cracked me up, but it did), the episode also featured John Slattery (who played an LSD-loving advertising executive on “Mad Men”) in a role as a philandering filmmaker. The episode played on documentary film’s origins in anthropology and the tensions between constructed narratives and observed truths that quickly developed. “Nanook” is particularly famous for the liberties it took with the truth–so, naturally “Kunuk Uncovered” pushes the limits of the original’s backstory.

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If you think this sounds like a lot of inside jokes, you’re absolutely right. The show’s finely crafted, subtle departures from the original documentaries are surprising, building into increasingly jarring comedic crescendos…that you would almost certainly miss if you hadn’t seen the originals. I took a documentary film class in college and nearly found myself reaching for the thick textbook that’s been gathering dust on my shelf.

You’ll get the most out of this show if you do some homework first, which is admittedly an unusual way to approach a half-hour comedy. But as far as rabbit holes go, delving into classic documentaries is definitely one of the more interesting tangents to wander. It’s a good jumping off point if you’re interested in learning more about documentaries.

To help, I’ve searched the internet for helpful links that can guide you through the remaining episodes of “Documentary Now!”

September 3: “Dronez, The Hunt for El Chingon”

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What it’s based on: VICE News

Why is VICE potentially funny? VICE is known for its sometimes abrasive narrative voice and hipster sensibility. If “Portlandia” has taught us anything, it’s that poking fun at hipsters is a worthwhile pastime. It’s also worth noting that this episode was bumped later in the season after the recent murder of two journalists in Virginia.

September 10: “The Eye Doesn’t Lie”

What it’s based on: “The Thin Blue Line,” which you can watch on Netflix

What’s so special about that? Errol Morris’ film about a man serving a life sentence is famous for two key things. First, after the film’s release, its subject’s case was reopened and he was eventually released from prison. And second, its structure features a mesmerizing series of repeated scenes that are altered slightly with each retelling, powerfully capturing the unreliability of memory.   

September 17: “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival”

What it’s based on: “Hollywood

What’s that show’s deal? “Hollywood” was actually a television series about silent films that was made in the 1980s. So, this episode is basically going to be a remake of a series of remakes–super meta.

September 24: “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee”

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What it’s based on: “The History of Eagles

Is this about birds? No. The original is a two part television series about the 1970s rock band, the Eagles. You’ve almost definitely sung along to “Hotel California” or “Horse With No Name” at some point!

Still curious? Check out some of these other resources:

Michelle
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