IFC’s ‘Documentary Now!’ Crafts Perfect Documentary Parodies — For a Select Audience

Documentary Now! has a fitting home on IFC, a network where weird comedies tend to hang around forever (Comedy Bang! Bang! is currently in the midst of a 40-episode season), and immense talents both behind and in front of the camera, and it arrives at a time when documentaries are gaining in popularity. But is that enough to build a solid comedy?

Sort of! The mockumentary genre has been growing stale for a few years now; even The Muppets is taking on the well-worn format when it premieres on ABC in the fall. But Documentary Now!, which premieres Thursday night (and has already been renewed for a second and third season), avoids most mockumentary clichés, providing  a better, fresher, and more accurate take on documentaries than we’re used to seeing. The key difference is that co-creators/writers/producers Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers aren’t going for the self-satisfied, smirking-at-the-camera approach, but instead aiming a little higher — and a little closer to the sensibilities of a typical film student. In a general sense, this works, but the show also sometimes requires that viewers be familiar with the source material in order to fully appreciate the jokes.

It isn’t too insider-y that it’s inaccessible (and everyone can appreciate Helen Mirren introducing each one). “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon,” the VICE News parody that went up for preview last week, is funny even if you’re not very familiar with Vice’s often ridiculous, gonzo-style work because of the quick escalation, the multiple deaths, and the hipster costumes Armisen and Hader wear throughout. It’s funny because it doesn’t just skewer Vice specifically (though that is its clear target), but expands to parody everything on the Internet that presents similar content with a similar slant. (It also helps that Vice’s approach, whether or not you read the site or watch the HBO series, is generally well known and easy to spoof.)

But these pitch-perfect parodies become trickier in other episodes, two of which were sent to critics alongside “Dronez”: “Sandy Passage” (the pilot episode, parodying Grey Gardens) and “Kunuk Uncovered” (the third episode, parodying Nanook of the North). Both are clever, spot-on, and impressively directed episodes with frequent funny moments. (Hader, especially, shows off his comedic and chameleonic talents.) But it’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t seen the original documentaries seeing the humor in them — or, honestly, appreciating them as anything more than weird and confusing.

As a viewer, I found this oddly frustrating. I could give or take “Sandy Passage” (though I appreciated the directing) but thoroughly enjoyed “Kunuk Uncovered,” which I put a funny and twisted spin on the original. At the same time, I was aware that part of what I liked about the episode was that I spent a hellish semester studying Nanook of the North in a film class. The men behind Documentary Now! are undeniably talented, but they’re also asking a lot of viewers: to laugh at jokes they may need a BA in Film Studies to understand.

Documentary Now! was partially born out of Saturday Night Live‘s “The History of Punk” sketch, so it makes sense that all the episodes have a very SNL sensibility (except, of course, that a single concepts is stretched out to 22 minutes). But “The History of Punk” was always the kind of admittedly weird sketch that the show buries after the musical guest’s second performance, the kind that only resonate with a small segment of the audience but go on to become slow, cultish hits. Documentary Now! will likely be a cult hit too, popular among film kids who can appreciate its attention to detail, but too specialized to break out to the mainstream. It’s also a series where individual episodes vary so widely that viewers shouldn’t write it off based on just one installment — you may not understand or like the first episode you see, but there’s a good chance that another week’s parody will leave you in hysterics.