Helen Mirren appears on screen first, ready to introduce the 51st season of “Documentary Now!” as VHS documentary-esque music plays on in the background, almost as if to prepare the audience for an actual production. Unlike short, comedic skits that go for the punchline almost immediately, “Documentary Now!” is invested in recreating scene-for-scene the documentaries that they’re concurrently choosing to roast any given week. And because of that, this IFC gem has been taking the world of comedic television by storm.
Attention to detail is the most closely associated comment for Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”) and Bill Hader’s (“Trainwreck”) mockumentary series as it faithfully reconstructs some of the most famous documentaries of the past several decades. However, on this note, the series creates its own spin on the original documentaries by adding in absurd situations that could only arise from the creative minds of “Saturday Night Live” alumni. Recurring jokes, reminiscent of “SNL,” almost make it easy to forget that “Documentary Now!” is a separate entity from NBC’s long-standing comedy beehive. However, while “SNL” aims to produce quick laughs from their viewers through the use of obvious props and discussions on character flaws, the mocking nature that comes from “Documentary Now!” is subtler — often coming from a quick wink or raised eyebrow from Hader and Armisen, or jokes that blend seamlessly into the environment the duo has transformed into their stage. Hader and Armison’s choice to distance themselves from their alma mater is a step in the right direction, as the hard work that goes into their low-key jibes clearly pays off in the long run.
As November fast approaches and election season looms over America, the obvious choice for the premiere of “Documentary Now!” was a parody of the 1993 documentary “The War Room,” which followed Bill Clinton’s ’92 campaign for presidency through two of his top staffers, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. This gives Hader the chance to revisit his uncanny Carville impression, a popular “Weekend Update” character during his years as an “SNL” regular. Meanwhile, Armisen takes on the role of a young George Stephanopoulos persona, Alvin Panagoulis, who flaunts his presence in the campaign.
In the parody titled “The Bunker,” Hader plays up the ruthless Southerner and Carville-inspired Teddy Redbones, who agressively pushes his candidate in a gubernatorial election though the use of false accusations and placing racially insensitive jockeys on the front lawns of their opponent’s supporters. It’s obvious that he’ll do just about anything to get his candidate elected, including taking a bullet to the leg and placing the blame on the opponent. In this respect, Armisen’s Panagoulious plays the same part, which is hilariously executed by comments regarding his attractiveness. “I feel like I’m shy….” Armisen dreamily recalls with a hand gracing his cheek, no doubt a silent reference to a young Stephanopoulos. Both Redbones and Panagoulious are sharply juxtaposed by their candidate, Ben Herndon (Van Epperson, “The Green Mile”), who refuses to exploit the secrets of his opponent for his own selfish gain after a moment of prayer and self-reflection. In fact, Herndon furthers his attempts at being the unpopular candidate through a general indifference in the election itself, being more concerned about taking one’s shoes off on his carpet than the polling numbers. In the end, it’s Hader’s character that’s filled to the brim with emotional outbursts — from weeping at an election speech to his impassioned persona in the election headquarters.
Although there’s a missed opportunity in the lack of commentary on this year’s electoral campaign, it’s probably for the best to keep the world of mockumentaries separate from the pressures of modern politics. If there’s any takeaway message coming from “The Bunker,” it’s that “Documentary Now!” is back, and it’s bolder than ever.