Documentary Now! Seasons 1 & 2 Blu-ray Review: An Entertaining Anthology

One of the advantages to the expansion of television platforms, from cable to streaming, is that it has allowed network executives to take greater risks on material that doesn’t appear to and may not have broad appeal. This provides artists a wider spectrum of possibilities from which to tell stories and entertain, such as the documentary-spoofing Documentary Now! created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and director Rhys Thomas, who all previously worked together at Saturday Night Live.

Airing on IFC, which seems a natural fit or it would if they were still showing independent films, the premise of Documentary Now! is that it is a long-running TV series that has focused on documentaries the past half-century. The series opens with host Helen Mirren revealing that for its golden anniversary, the program is going to “take a look back at the films that helped shape and innovate the world of documentary.” The 14 episodes (and counting as a third season is set to debut on February 20) spoof 12 documentaries. Each season ends with a two-part episode.

The first season covers the films Grey Gardens, directed by Dave and Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer; Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North; Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line; and from TV, the documentaries Hollywood and History of the Eagles as well as Vice news reports. The second season covers Chris Hegedus & D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, another Maysles brothers film (in conjunction with co-director Charlotte Zwerin) Salesman, Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, and two by Jonathan Demme: Swimming to Cambodia written by and starring Spalding Gray, and the Talking Heads’ concert film, Stop Making Sense.

Armisen and Hader anchor the series with their performances, creating funny, believable characters. As writers, they, along with other contributors/friends from SNL like John Mulaney, capture the essence of the original stories and give them clever twists, like the ending of Grey Gardens-inspired “Sandy Passage” and transporting Jiro’s particular creation of sushi to a Colombian restaurant in “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken”. Directors Rhys Thomas & Alex Buono and the production crew do a fantastic job mimicking the look of each documentary. Knowing the source material adds to the humor as some of the jokes are about them.

The video is presented in a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer with varying aspect ratios. The look of the each episode intentionally mimics the visual style of the documentary it is covering. Most are shot in color, some use black and white. Colors can be bright hues or faded. Similarly, the image can have a sharp or soft focus. Blacks and whites also appear in various stages of purity. Different film stocks and digital effects create the appearance of age and wear. The audio is presented in LPCM 2.0. Dialogue is clear. “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” and “Final Transmission” are the most music-based episodes and the music has good fidelity. Unfortunately, there are no extras.

Documentary Now! is an entertaining anthology, especially for fans of the classic documentaries that are spoofed. It might be too niche for some, but it worked for me.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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