IFC’s anthology series Documentary Now will always be a show of niche appeal, with its highly specific parodies of works ranging from Grey Gardens to Vice news docs. Its directors, Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, pay such close attention to the films they’re mimicking that viewers can watch the original and the caricature side by side and detect choices as subtle as the use of jump-cuts, the font of the opening credits, or the lighting of an interview subject. The show’s stars, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, elevate every episode with their performances, but it’s a comedy that wrings laughs mostly with its rigorous attention to detail.
The first episode of Documentary Now’s second season, airing Wednesday, is a twist on 1993’s The War Room called “The Bunker” where details as small as Armisen’s way of winking flirtily at the camera or Hader’s colorful assortment of garish sweaters manage to be spit-take worthy. The episode, written by the comedian John Mulaney, is a canny piece of nostalgia that captures the core of Documentary Now’s appeal: “The Bunker” virtually teleports viewers back to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, down to the wood-paneled walls and grainy VHS visuals. The series is a throwback whose humor hinges on unbelievable accuracy—both when it comes to the superficial elements and the deeper essence of the works being parodied.
In “The Bunker,” Armisen plays the campaign hotshot Alvin Panagoulious, analogous to George Stephanopoulos, a dreamy political whiz kid in 1992. Hader is Teddy Redbones, a toned-down version of his Jimmy Carville impression from his Saturday Night Live days. Together, they’re working on an Ohio gubernatorial campaign with the intensity of their real-life counterparts, though their client seems barely interested in attending the debates. While the War Room directors D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus wrought drama from dingy town-hall meetings and community events, its mockumentary version turns the sleepiest race possible into a viper’s nest of backstabbing and skullduggery as Redbones resorts to extreme tactics to get his man elected.
The best episode of Documentary Now’s first season was “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” a parody of the true-crime masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. There, Armisen and Hader took the real people featured in Errol Morris’s film and dialed them up just slightly. Unlike when they were on Saturday Night Live, the actors seem to relish avoiding big catchphrases or obvious comedic tics. In “The Bunker,” Armisen’s Stephanopoulos impression boils down to a Beatles haircut and a baleful grin; “You think I’m a cute hunk?” Alvin asks his colleagues, resting his chin on his hand balefully. “I feel like I’m shy.” Redbones lacks the cartoonish snicker of Hader’s Carville impression, tutting quietly at campaign workers who disapprove of him hiring forgers to change his opponent’s yearbook quote.
The period details recall eras that viewers know and love, or works of cinema so famous their jump-cuts have become clichés. Even season one’s “Kunuk Uncovered,” a take on the documentary about the landmark 1922 work Nanook of the North, found a way to shake up a staid formula. Along with the graininess of The War Room, this season is tackling the sumptuous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (which becomes “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken”); the Maysles Brothers’ aching tale of Bible hawkers, Salesman (now “Globesman,” about door-to-door globe sellers); and the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense (“Final Transmission,” a music parody featuring Maya Rudolph).
In a Peak TV world, there’s an audience (however modest) for the kind of obsessiveness on display in every week of Documentary Now, especially since three Saturday Night Live alums are behind it. Even viewers unfamiliar with the original works being parodied will find plenty to enjoy, but the show’s chief draw is undoubtedly tied to its source material. Every mini-movie has a strange humanity to it, looking to echo the heart of the subject, as well as the style. “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” recognizes that Jiro Dreams of Sushi was a story of sons grappling with the legacy of their father’s genius. “The Bunker” knows that viewers have some affection for an era of politics where battles weren’t fought online, but in grimy campaign offices. There’s an art to parody that goes beyond imitation, but doesn’t work without it, and Documentary Now is one of the only shows on TV these days that understands that.