I think we should look at things this way – yes, there are a lot of shows out there now. Between streaming services, regular, old cable, and the Internet, we are inundated with stuff to watch. You could easily argue that it’s too much and someone could just as easily agree with you and ask you to speed up your argument because they’re currently in the middle of binging Game of Thrones. No spoilers though! They’re only through four seasons.
Yet while there is most definitely a lot to watch, all of that real estate opens up room for some truly bizarre and inventive programming. I think the best example of this is Documentary Now!, the documentary-spoofing vehicle created by Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Rhys Thomas. At this point in his career, pretty much anything attached to Meyers, as well as Armisen and Hader, is going to get greenlit. However, because of how many shows there are, I think it gave IFC a certain amount of wiggle room when it came to taking a chance on a show as brilliantly weird as Documentary Now! is. In a world where only even fifty channels existed, Documentary Now! probably wouldn’t and that would be a damn shame.
Documentary Now! is definitely a challenging hang as far as shows go. Not only might it not be for everyone, for even the people it’s for, some episodes also might not be for all of them. You might love one episode and then be completely disinterested in the next. But you have to hold on because that next episode could bring you right back in and be the funniest thing you’ve seen in a long time.
The main constant throughout the first two seasons was the presence of Hader and Armisen, although even that is unreliable as both of the show’s “leads” don’t always appear in episodes (or seasons in Hader’s case). In the show’s first season, the pair appeared together as aging female socialites in the first episode, “Sandy Passage,” then in the next episode, “Kunuk Uncovered,” Armisen did the heavy lifting, playing an Eskimo with a penchant for film-making. In the next episode, Hader and Armisen were together again, playing hipster reporters tracking down a drug kingpin in Mexico. Throughout the show’s first two seasons, at least one of the two SNL vets appeared in each episode. They either alternate who is the episode’s main character or share the duties. The show’s strongest episodes are usually the ones in which they appear together, as they work so well as a team.
Somehow the show returned for a third season, which was even more amazing than the fact that it exists at all. Hader was still around, but due to his work with Barry, was largely there in the form of a production credit with the exception being the season’s fourth episode, “Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter from the Far Side,” which he co-wrote. Armisen isn’t on-screen as much as he was in seasons one and two, but he still appeared in three of the episodes. I guess you could be worried that without the two of them, the show won’t be the same. But then again, this isn’t a typical show. The third season featured an impressive crew of ringers to fill in for Hader and Armisen, including John Mulaney, Michael Keaton, and Owen Wilson among others. Oh, and Cate Blanchett.
Season three had a different feel to it, so let’s take some time to look back at Giddy Up America’s five favorite episodes from the show’s first two seasons.
5. “Final Transmission” (season 2, episode 5)
The show has done two takes on music documentaries and has effectively nailed both of them, so much so that I almost wish they’d do an entire season of them.
In season two, they tackled Stop Making Sense, the 1984 concert film by the Talking Heads. Armisen assumes the David Byrne role as lead singer and guitarist of the new wave band Test Pattern. Hader plays bass and Maya Rudolph is the band’s female singer and keyboardist, as well as one time girlfriend of Hader’s character and wife of Armisen’s character, whom she married as part of an ongoing performance art piece he was doing “about the banality of marriage.” His other marriages were to a phone, a bird, and a sports car.
4. “The Bunker” (season 2, episode 1)
“We’ve all been the person at the wedding that no one wants to speak to during passed appetizers,” Hader’s character says while giving a pep talk to campaign workers in this spoof of The War Room, a 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Hader, who played James Carville on Saturday Night Live, dusts off his Carville impression for this, while Armisen plays the George Stephanopoulos’ character, both of whom are working to elect a long-shot candidate for governor of Ohio.
3. “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, Parts 1 & 2” (season 1, episodes 6, 7)
The show’s first music mockumentary focuses on the 1970’s soft rock band, the Blue Jean Committee, a band who started out wanting to play Chicago blues, realized they were terrible at it, and then found success with “that California sound,” despite never having been there. Their success was short-lived, with them having only released one album before they broke up following a dust-up at a meat is murder benefit (which was too much for Armisen’s character, a man whose family was a proud Chicago sausage family.) They still managed to make the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame though and have their praises sung by Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, Chuck Klosterman, Haim, and Cameron Crowe.
If you take anything away from the episode, it’s that nothing is more important than retaining the marketing rights to something.
2. “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon” (season 1, episode 3)
I’d imagine that at some point, almost everyone has found themselves captivated by something VICE has done and subsequently amazed that they are able to get the access that they do. They must be crazy, we all think. And they are. They most likely are.
This episode is the only Documentary Now! episode that doesn’t tackle a specific doc and instead spoofs VICE’s whole vibe. Dronez (a VICE stand-in,) sends two reporters (played by Hader and Armisen) down to Mexico to find a notorious drug dealer. Hader and Armisen end up playing three different Dronez’ reporters, as their characters’ stupidity and ignorance keep getting them killed, while Jack Black plays the head of Dronez.
This episode would easily be number one, if not for…
1. “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” (season 2, episode 2)
Bill Hader writes about food in Central America, but he continues to come back to Juan’s Rice & Chicken, a restaurant that is miles from the nearest road. Oh, and it’ll only have chicken if Juan, the restaurant’s 80-year-old owner, and chef, catches one that day. If not, no chicken. Only a warm cup of coffee, a banana split in two, and a ball of rice topped with butter.
Armisen plays Juan’s son Arturo, who one day will most likely take over for his father. As with any situation where a son takes over for a father, there is concern that things might change. This is especially true because Arturo is afraid of chickens.
This episode is funny and it’s sweet, a perfect take on food documentaries, right down to the music choices. “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken’s” inspiration is the work of David Gelb, who created Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table, and if you’ve seen either of those, then you can immediately see the similarities between the two, whether it’s the close-up shots, the use of classical music or the details helping to tell the chef’s story.
Come for the scenery, stay for the chicken prep techniques, provided they catch a chicken.
The Episodes That Just Missed the Top 5
“Sandy Passage” (season 1, episode 1)
“Original Cast Album: Co-Op” (season 3, episode 3)
“Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” (season 2, episode 3)
“Any Given Saturday Afternoon” (season 3, episode 7)
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie” (season 1, episode 4)