“We’ve all been the most unpopular guy in the room. We’ve all been the person at the wedding that nobody wants to talk to…”
Documentary Now! was one of my absolute favorite shows of last year – a series that consistently blew me away with how meticulous and impressive it could be. This is a show for nerds, and documentary nerds at that. That doesn’t mean you need to be such a creature in order to enjoy the straight-faced madness of this show, but you’ll end up appreciating it even more if you are.
The series’ first season hit so many formative and important docs that it allows this season the luxury of “relaxing” a little. The season is able to do a lot more contemporary homages that aren’t as tied up in artifice and stylistic devices like so much of the first season was, such as in “Kunuk Uncovered” or “DRONEZ.” The choices this season feel a lot more personal to the show’s creative team, leading to some very satisfying, loving installments that not only rival the quality of the first season, but also might even surpass it.
Season two kicks off with “The Bunker,” a doc examining the political campaign of a gubernatorial race that ends up focusing more on the people behind the campaign than the candidates themselves, a la Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room from 1993, set around the Clinton presidential campaign. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen portray campaign managers Teddy Redbones and Alvin Panagoulious (a pretty glowing “Stephanopoulos” alternate) respectively, as their efforts to lead their candidates to success play out. A shaky cam, fly-on-the-wall sort of approach is employed as the private moments of the campaign are shown and you’re let into this inner circle. Elsewhere, elements like television appearances, newspaper articles, poll results, and other media events are used as a means of spreading out the commentary on the doc’s subject matter.
Armisen and Hader are typically the people getting applause for their work on this show, but Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, the series’ directors, display exceptional ability every episode. They truly don’t get enough credit for the chameleon job that they’re doing in every single entry. It’s a totally new style present in each episode, usually spanning decades of cinema at a time, and it’s all coming out of merely a duo of voices. It’s incredible.
As “The Bunker” rolls on, it chronicles Redbones and Panagoulious squabbling over issues like campaign videos (which leads to a great piece on whether their ad qualifies as a death threat), digging up dirt on the opponent (or planting “lawn jockeys” on the lawns of those who support the opposing side), and how to spin a bad story. There’s a special sort of warmth behind these campaigning scenes where we see the candidates having fun with their supporters and loved ones.
The camera practically loses itself amongst all of this joy and optimism, until it then slowly comes across Teddy Redbones and fixates on his stern glare as he’s mouthing all of the words to Herndon’s speech, like a maniac possessed by a trance. This is the crux of this documentary. These moments where the ego and influence of Redbones and Panagoulious take over and transform what’s going on around them. John Mulaney contributed to the first season of Documentary Now!, but he’s even more of a presence in the writers’ room this year. He’s responsible for penning “The Bunker” along with some of the best scripts of the season.
Redbones and Panagoulious are indeed the focus of the documentary and both Hader and Armisen deliver grand performances. Hader is doing a wonderful brash Southern personality who’s been dubbed the “Mississippi Machiavelli,” who operates not unlike an unleashed drill sergeant. Every line he says is a delight to hear. Armisen on the other hand plays a squirmier, optimistic egoist as his foil. Hader’s performance at the end of this one is particularly worth singling out. It’s just incredible acting all around and a reminder of how good these guys can be. If you didn’t know the constructs of this series, you’d swear Hader’s tears were real. There’s also some good use of character actor Wayne Federman in this episode, acting as a nice example of the show’s methodical, careful use of “real” actors that don’t shatter the illusion that’s being created.
As the mayoral race escalates, Redbones gets shot by a Lester supporter in a great moment that takes things in an unexpected direction and plays with your expectations of what this “smoking gun moment” in the doc is actually going to be. It’s the perfect climax to ramp things up on as well as a despondent possible note to conclude this story on, but “The Bunker” doesn’t take any of this bait. It practically shrugs away this shooting like Redbones or Panagoulious were returning an undercooked meal at a bistro. Then it’s back to non-business as usual for the doc.
A lot of the fun of this episode is in watching these two personalities campaign and cover their candidate’s ass to secure this win, but it hardly feels like the show’s best material. Sure, the episode’s replication of Hegedus and Pennebaker’s The War Room is seamless (they even have Hader and Arimsen wearing the same clothes as their filmic counterparts in a number of scenes!) and I can understand the temptation of doing an election episode this year.
This sort of story has been done so much in other respects in TV and film, so with Documentary Now! tackling some much more challenging subject matter, it feels like a little bit of a weaker installment to kick off the season. That being said, this is the nitpickiest of complaints and “The Bunker” not only succeeds in pulling off the documentary parody that it’s going for, but also in just being downright funny and another good showcase of Hader and Armisen. It’s just not their best material and an episode that might have been better suited for the middle of the season. That being said, I’m not not going to laugh at Panagoulious doing a Michael Jackson impression, or Redbones warming up a mic with the verbal exercise, “Put the taffy down, Tubby Tammy.”
It’s good to have these real faux weirdoes back.