‘Documentary Now!’: The TV Mockumentary You Have to See
In the fourth episode of Documentary Now!‘s short but sophisticated first season, the series takes on Errol Morris’s 1988 true crime documentary, The Thin Blue Line, with such devotion that the slow-motion cinematography appears almost identical.
Episode writers John Mulaney and Bill Hader, — the latter is one of the would-be stars of the anthology-style series — tweak their source material just enough to make the material hilarious. The dramatic slow-motion shots of crime reenactments are there, but they focus on flung ice cream cones, an enthusiastic sign spinner, and one of those inflatable waving-arm men at a used car lot.
Series creators and stars Bill Hader and Fred Armisen are allowed to find humor from such details and well-observed parody, both because of IFC’s open-mindedness in its programming and because of the very nature of its format — the mockumentary. The greatest mockumentaries thrive in a place just between wacky parody and honest recreation, finding an obscure sweet spot between the absurd and the true-to-life that calls attention to the absurdity of real life.
The term originated in the ’60s, but was popularized primarily by the success of This Is Spinal Tap, a faux-documentary about a phony hair metal group, Spinal Tap, clinging to their fading cock rock fame as they age out of rock ‘n’ roll. The brilliant comedy is a biting parody that transforms the proud misogyny and excesses of ’80s rock into something mundane and ridiculous in its self-seriousness.
However, some audiences mistook the comedy as nonfiction upon its first release. Musicians such as Ozzy Osbourne, Jimmy Page, Lars Ulrich, Glenn Danzig, and Pete Townshend have all noted how true-to-life This Is Spinal Tap is, at least in parts.
This Is Spinal Tap fooled so many and remains so funny because it traffics in the stripped-down visual language of other rock-docs of the time. One of the film’s stars, Christopher Guest, has gone on to direct several mockumentaries of his own, including A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, relying upon a core stable of actors to create the comedy through stone-faced improvisation.
Perhaps the most noteworthy and successful mockumentary since Spinal Tap is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, which is more a showcase for Cohen’s hilarious commitment to his character than any sort of direct parody, relying upon the reactions of non-actors to Cohen’s racially insensitive but lovably clueless Kazakh journalist.
This year saw the release of New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, hewing closer to the This Is Spinal Tap school of mockumentary by peeling back the layers of myth to expose all that is silly and mundane about vampire lore. Documentary Now! is 2015’s second major contribution to the history of mockumentary, and in some ways, it’s more sophisticated than either What We Do in the Shadows or This Is Spinal Tap.
The series has yet to produce anything as hilarious as, say, the Stonehenge sequence from This Is Spinal Tap or the botched feeding from What We Do in the Shadows, but because it’s an anthology and each episode functions as its own unit, parodying one specific documentary or genre of documentary, Documentary Now! has a visual panache and versatility all its own. Unlike Guest’s mockumentaries, Documentary Now! relies upon visual language just as much if not more than improvisation and dialogue.
It succeeds from that same sweet spot between reality and absurdity, however, as demonstrated in the pilot, Sandy Passage, a parody of Grey Gardens that only truly becomes more ridiculous than its source material in the final minutes when it morphs into a found-footage horror film, a transformation that seems oddly fitting with the source material.
Documentary Now! is the true heart of the mockumentary medium expanding into television. While popular network series, such as Modern Family and The Office, use the faux-documentary format more as an inconsequential framing device, as though it were just another aspect of lighting or cinematography, Documentary Now! is built upon it.
Unfortunately, Documentary Now! and What We Do in the Shadows still exist on the fringes of the mainstream market. A niche comedy series like Documentary Now!, however, might find some measure of success and influence, given the time to expand upon its premise and create denser comedy, thereby making their uber-specific parodies slightly more accessible.
But how successful can a series that devotes full episodes to parodying the likes of Grey Gardens or Nanook of the North really be? Given the cable success of comedies as idiosyncratic as Drunk History or Louie and IFC’s modestly rising star in the world of alternative comedy television, I’m optimistic about the future of Documentary Now! and television mockumentaries in general.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jrindskopf
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