We’ve made a mockery of mockumentaries. Somewhere in the past decade, the rise of found footage horror, reality TV parody, sitcoms like The Office, and Christopher Guest copycats have all conspired to turn a once-bold genre into something safe, easy, and often unexceptional. The new IFC series, Documentary Now!, however, is neither of those things.
Created by the SNL alum all-star trifecta of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers, the show succeeds in sending up the genre by exploring the variety of subgenres it contains. While mockumentaries have been burning themselves out for some time, documentaries have been thriving. They are currently more plentiful, of higher quality, and easier to access than ever before. Documentary Now! acknowledges as much by satirizing a different style of doc, or a specific example, in each episode.
IFC is so confident in the resulting mix of high-brow and low-brow humor that it’s already renewed the series for a second season ahead of its August 20 premiere.
Coming from reliable sketch comedy vets like Armisen and Hader, each episode has jokes that stand on their own without any context. However, the show’s offerings are that much richer for being steeped in their source material. Here is Co.Create’s guide to all the targets in the first season of Documentary Now! (Maybe next time, fans of The Jinx!)
The Source Documentary: Grey Gardens
The Episode It Inspired: “Sandy Passage”
This seminal documentary, and the HBO movie it inspired, follows the peculiar lives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis relatives, Big Edie Beale and her daughter Edie. Most of the runtime is devoted to exploring the reclusive duo’s current eccentricities and the detritus of their shared and separate pasts. On the show, Armisen and Hader play Vivvy and “Little” Vivvy Van Kimpton, a similar mother and daughter living in a decrepit country home called Sandy Passage. At a certain point in “Sandy Passage,” though, the story takes a turn Grey Gardens fans may not expect.
The Source Documentary: Vice
The Episode It Inspired: “The Hunt For El Chingon”
Jack Black plays a character obviously modeled after Shane Smith, the cofounder and CEO of Vice Media, and the host of the doc series Vice on HBO. The show is known for its achingly hip and gritty plunge into dangerous, forbidden, or at least ill-advised areas around the world. The reporters Hader and Armisen portray here seem to feed off of the danger, perhaps a bit too heartily.
The Source Documentary: Nanook of the North
The Episode It Inspired: “Kunuk Uncovered”
In the world of the show, Kunuk The Hunter exists instead of Nanook Of The North, an early example of the documentary form that depicts the lives of Quebecois Inuit. The film famously contains some fictional examples of how its subjects live, which is an element that is exploited to a hilarious extent in this new interpretation.
The Source Documentary: Hollywood
The Episode It Inspired: “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival”
According to a poster that premiered on Mashable, this episode about an Al Capone festival in Arborg Iceland draws from the 1980 documentary series, Hollywood. Each of the 13 episodes detailed a different aspect of the formation of the studio system and its impact on 1920s society. This is also around the time that Al Capone came into power, and it will be interesting to see how Documentary Now! ties these two developments together.
The Source Documentary: The Thin Blue Line
The Episode It Inspired: “The Eye Doesn’t Lie”
Errol Morris has developed a directorial style every bit as distinctive as Ken Burns, and that all started with The Thin Blue Line in 1988. That film was an investigation into the murder of a Dallas police officer, and the subsequent death sentence of a man who did not commit the crime. Interviews and reenactments flesh out the story–a story so convincing, the defendant’s case was reviewed and he was released from prison in the wake of the film’s release. There’s a very good chance the show’s version of this film will include some riff on Phillip Glasses famous, discordant score.
The Source Documentary: History Of The Eagles
The Episode It Inspired: “Blue Jean Committee”
Although Armisen and Hader already tried out the Spinal Tap format on SNL with Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros: History of Punk, that doesn’t mean they’ve exhausted all possibilities of parodying music documentaries. The season finale, which IFC just announced will be split into two parts, takes its cues from History of The Eagles, a doc co-produced by Alex Gibney that takes the story of this mega-selling classic rock band quite seriously.
Watch a couple other trailers for the show below: