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IFC's 'Documentary Now' Is A Great Spoof Series - And More
August 20, 2015  | By David Bianculli  | 4 comments
 


Do the names Big Edie and Little Edie, or Nanook of the North, ring a bell? If they do, then have I got a TV miniseries for you. It’s a spoof of classic documentaries, and it’s delightful…

Documentary Now!, which premieres Thursday night at 10 on IFC, is packaged like a stuffy PBS anthology series, complete with a respected and relentlessly serious host – in this case, Helen Mirren. She’s playing herself, and pretending to be the presenter for a nonfiction TV anthology series so revered and long-standing, it’s celebrating its golden anniversary. And in so doing, is looking back and rebroadcasting some of the most familiar films in its 50-year history.

The trick is, those films don’t really exist. Instead, they’re warped approximations of some of the genre’s most acclaimed nonfiction films, including Robert J. Flaherty’s landmark 1922 study of an Inuit native in the Arctic Circle, Nanook of the North, and the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary about eccentric recluses “Little Edie” Bouvier and her mother, “Big Edie.” (left)

 Only in most of these “new” old films, written principally by Seth Meyers, the stars are Meyers’ fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. In tonight’s opening installment, “Sandy Passage,” Armisen plays the critter-feeding, daughter-berating “Big Vivvy,” while Hader, wearing sweatpants on his head and carrying around an air of grand self-delusion, plays “Little Vivvy,” the loyal yet resentful daughter (both right).

Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore played the roles of Big and Little Edie, respectively, in a 2009 HBO telemovie, and were superbly entertaining – but so are Armisen and Hader, capturing both the weirdness and loneliness behind their perpetually unkempt characters.

IFC provided three episodes for preview: the Grey Gardens spoof, another that’s a takeoff on the guerrilla style of filmmaking championed by HBO’s Vice (Jack Black, left, plays the bearded, self-satisfied host there), and a third, “Kanook Uncovered,” (below) that’s a very detailed dissection of one of the first full-length documentaries, Nanook of the North.

And to Meyers’ credit, all three veer off in unexpected directions: “Kanook” unveiling the “true origins” of certain film techniques and staged scenes, the Vice parody (called “Dronez,” pronounced as one syllable) introducing sudden elements of severe danger, and “Sandy Passage,” most impressively, shifting unexpectedly but seamlessly from quiet character study to “found footage” horror film.

It’s better, of course, to have seen the original documentaries before watching the Documentary Now! parodies, though it’s not essential. In this modern era of On Demand video and streaming sites, it’s very possible to find the originals – and you should.

But either way, I highly recommend Documentary Now! And though I didn’t think I could love Helen Mirren more than I did already, after her darling deadpan intros as host of this tongue-in-cheek miniseries, I do. IFC already has ordered additional episodes of this series for next year, and it’s very easy to see why.

For my full review of Documentary Now! on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, listen to the show today, or visit the Fresh Air website after 5 p.m. ET Thursday afternoon.

 
 
 
 
 
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4 Comments
 
 
Kevin
Even though Sandy Passage's ending was creepy and seemed out of place, I intend watching the series. I liked Hader's character falling through the floor and landing on the kitchen table with Armisen's character eating breakfast. "I fell through the floor. Again."

Mirren is hot, too.
Aug 24, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Maureen
Absolute entertainment!! I had seen the the actual documentary and the spoof was freakin hilarious. I'm going to watch the real documentaries before seeing the spoofs. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are comic geniuses!!!
Aug 24, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Jennifer
You cant watch it now for free:
http://www.ifc.com/watch-now/documentary-now/4411132844001/dronez-the-hunt-for-el-chingon-pre-air-premiere
Aug 21, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
jan
I saw the first episode from last night and loved it. Can't wait to see the rest, and I've heard it's been renewed, so something to look forward to.
Aug 21, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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