Watching Documentary Now! feels like the moment when you reach the end of a feast and decide you have room for dessert. For fans of documentary filmmaking, the series — which parodies famous documentaries from Nanook of the North to Vice News — is a delicious complement to the already consumed nonfiction main course, a final flourish to solidify the memory of what came before. The first season of Documentary Now! was released on its home network of IFC to little fanfare, but since the show made its way to Netflix, it has developed a cult following; I’ve heard more vocal jealousy from friends about my early screeners for Documentary Now!, which premiers on IFC on September 14, than I have for probably any new media I’ve reviewed since the last season of Broad City.
Documentary Now! is a rundown of the most beloved (or most bewildering) films of the documentary canon — a kind of encyclopedic Easter Egg hunt through the history of documentary filmmaking — led by Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. If Armisen’s other great parody series, Portlandia, is a nudge in the ribs at the often silly hipster culture of Portland, Documentary Now! is a show by fans for fans. The obvious joy Armisen and Hader take in reenacting films they love is a pleasure even when you don’t know the movie. The objects of Hader and Armisen’s fandom are serious, rigorous, informative works of art, which only makes the comedy more giddy. The show hyperbolizes iconic moments like Spalding Gray’s monologue in Swimming to Cambodia or Jiro Ono’s food preparation in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but the hyperbole can’t hide the thoughtful effort that went into recreating sets and hairstyles and rhythms of different eras of film and human behavior. If Portlandia mocks the world it explores, Documentary Now! tickles the goofy soft spots under the surface of what might seem like untouchably respectable films. In a wild twist for satiric comedy, Documentary Now! leaves the films it uses as subjects more dear, more humanized, more vast, and more mysterious than they appeared at the start. It’s deeply respectful satire, enacted with awe.
That’s not to say every episode of Documentary Now! is created equal. The first episode of the new season is an adaptation of the D.A. Pennebaker doc The War Room, about the 1992 Clinton election campaign, which I must confess I have not seen. The War Room might be a timely subject considering that we have another Clinton on the presidential campaign trail, but the integrity of Hader and Armisen’s interpretation means that the episode never breaks out of the microcosmic world of its ’90s political setting, and so without current-day relevance or knowledge of the original movie, I was a bit lost, though fortunately never bored. The documentaries chosen for the second season are, so far, slightly deeper cuts than the ones parodied in Season 1, but as the show proves in the third episode, “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything,” obscurity can sometimes heighten the fun of watching the show. That episode is based on Jonathan Demme’s 1987 recording of Spalding Gray performing his one-man play Swimming to Cambodia, but on Documentary Now!, Gray’s American military-industrial complex criticism becomes a kind of fever-dream screed against gentrification in Manhattan, delivered by Bill Hader in character as Spalding Gray, himself one of the lost figures of Old New York. The liberties Hader and Armisen take with Swimming to Cambodia are an example of Documentary Now! at its best — in a virtuoso performance, Hader does away with trying to summarize Gray’s arguments and instead transforms them into a commentary on a disappearing New York arts landscape, bringing to the surface the lost world of 1980s New York that would have been invisible to Spalding Gray at the time, but which seems spectacularly exotic now.
But of all the new episodes, the obvious standout is the mostly Spanish-language “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken.” The episode spoofs Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the famous sushi chef Jiro Ono, who runs a Michelin three-star sushi restaurant in Tokyo. The episode parodies the extreme care of Ono’s preparation and the fraught father-son dynamics that are explored in the original movie, but the Documentary Now! version sets itself in an arroz con pollo restaurant in Colombia. At first, seeing the location, I was afraid the Documentary Now! crew were going to make the stereotypical joke about Latinx food being easy and unartistic to prepare instead of the exoticized sushi that makes David Gelb’s original movie into the classic food-porn doc that it is. But instead, “Juan Loves Rice and Beans” aims for cultural relativism, not cultural superiority, and the results are typically very funny, but also unexpectedly touching to watch as a Latinx viewer — especially when you consider the involvement of the show’s star, Fred Armisen. (Plus the chicken looks really tasty!)
Armisen’s mother is Venezuelan and his father is both Japanese and German, and the ambiguity of his physical features and his lived experiences has led to a career that largely plays on the vague nature of his identity. He received flak for his Obama impersonation years ago on SNL, but many of his most successful characters are different plays on racial (or gendered) identity, from his Prince to his Governor David Paterson. Because Armisen shifts his presentation so often, it’s easy to forget that he is Latino — and this ambiguity is a quality that has served many Latinx performers over the years, from Rita Hayworth to Oscar Isaac, as an overt association with Latinidad has sometimes led to entire careers trapped in stereotypes of Latin hustlers and cholas ad infinitum.
For years, Armisen’s fluent and attentive cultural mimicry has provided a for-the-most-part respectful look at identity as performance, and usually the fun of laughing at him has been about enjoying his playful hollowness. But there’s something touching about watching Armisen speak fluent Spanish, and with it, committing to an unshakable sense of identity. It helps that the episode is situated in a series where he has already played an Eskimo and a blue-blooded white granny and a George Stephanopoulos knockoff, and it’s a subtle undertone, not something that feels like a grand pronouncement. Maybe it’s only on the IFC channel where you could get away with an English-language series suddenly having an episode almost entirely in Spanish, but watching an American show do a Spanish parody of a Japanese documentary feels like an unexpectedly optimistic and modern example of what television can be in an increasingly connected world.