One of the most distinctive qualities of Documentary Now! is how disparate its episodes are. Each week promises a new genre, a new style, a completely new voice. Tonight’s “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” even seems to be a departure from the typical parody approach of Documentary Now!, relying less on referencing a real-world documentary to construct its narrative, leading to the strangest and yet most familiar episode of the show’s first season.

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A few sources have suggested the 1980 docuseries Hollywood: A Celebration Of The American Silent Film as the inspiration for “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” but let’s just throw that information aside—even if it’s true. First of all, “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” has very little in common with Hollywood other than the fact that both look at a specific part of 1920s American culture…sort of. “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” is the most successful standalone installment of Documentary Now! to date. Sure, “Sandy Passages” and “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” work fine enough even if you aren’t familiar with Grey Gardens or The Thin Blue Line, but for those who have seen the original source material, the humor works on more levels (and that’s especially true for “The Eye Doesn’t Lie”). With “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” everything you need to enjoy this episode at its fullest potential is right there. The intertextuality and in-jokes aren’t really there in the same way they are for other episodes. It’s a parody in a much broader sense. It’s the most accessible episode of Documentary Now!, even though it deals with such a specific, weird subject matter.

“A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” follows the inhabitants of a small town in Iceland as they prepare for an annual three-day celebration that honors notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. The fake origins of the fake festival are as haphazard as I imagine the initial pitch was in the Documentary Now! writers room: Four dudes in Árborg, Iceland make an Al Capone joke at the expense of some Swedish football fans. Boom! The Al Capone Festival is born. In the world “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” constructs, Árborg is absolutely crazy for Capone, and the culture of the festival seeps into all aspects of life. Schoolchildren practice smoking imaginary cigars and exclaim “we love you, Al Capone!” in unison. The health minister passes out Al Capone condoms to raise awareness for syphilis. The reluctant mayor judges the traditional Al Capone look-alike contest. And everyone plays it so straight that it almost feels real, even in the most absurd details. Whereas “DRONEZ” heightens through extreme exaggeration, “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” plays with subtlety, presenting oddities as commonplace.

“A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” notably stands out from the Documentary Now! parodies that precede it by diminishing the roles of co-creators Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in front of the camera. Hader isn’t in the episode at all (due to scheduling issues that didn’t allow him to travel to Iceland). Armisen wrote the episode with co-creator Seth Meyers and appears in a small role, but it’s the Icelandic actors playing the townsfolk of Árborg who carry the episode. In fact, Armisen’s character is one of the least fun parts of the script. According to Documentary Now! executive producer Rhys Thomas, who also co-directed the episode with Alex Buono, the Icelandic actors improvised a lot of the episode.

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As a result, there’s a certain authenticity to the dialogue, even as the characters say ridiculous things about Al Capone. There’s nothing overtly funny about the mayor saying “it’s not appealing to me” about her role in the look-alike contest, and yet, her delivery is so natural and serious that it nearly got a spit take out of me. When Gunnar Brynjarsson—the local hotshot and long-time champion of the look-alike contest—gets in a fight with his teenage son who wants to skip the Al Capone Festival in favor of the neighboring town’s Jimi Hendrix festival, all the details of their fight are, well, absurd. But the two actors play the emotions of the moment as completely real so that it really just feels like a standard argument between a son and his overbearing father.

For the whole episode, Documentary Now! takes a very silly concept and plays it as close to real as possible. I won’t lie: There were a few brief moments when I forgot this whole thing is fake. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I just became so convinced of these people’s misplaced admiration of Al Capone that I lost my sense of reality. Even more surprisingly, I became emotionally invested. Yes, I started to care about the people in a fake documentary. Specifically, Nina, who hopes to be the first woman to win the look-alike contest, is just such a fun character who you immediately want to root for. Her cute but awkward relationship with her boyfriend, who fully supports her and even gifts her a wooden tommy gun on the day of the contest, has a very subtle Office-like strain to it. The actor playing Nina does a fantastic job of playing through the real emotions of the bit. Her delivery of “it’s a little bit scary…hopefully, maybe” as the judges deliberate reads as so genuine that I started nervously hoping she would win, too. Again, it’s a ridiculous premise played with grounded emotions, lending to the believability and brilliance of “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival.”

Stray observations

  • Nina: “Now that I’m Al Capone, I’ll tell him what to do.” Nina’s boyfriend: “SHe already tells me what to do. Every time.” I just love the delivery of this so much, especially his nervous laugh.
  • Nina recounting the time she and her boyfriend dressed as Al Capone and his mistress, respectively, when out to dinner is also great. The look-alike contest may have been a three-way tie, but Nina is the real MVP of “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival.”
  • Aidy Bryant is wonderful as always. In a way, I’m sort of glad she’s somewhat underused because, again, it’s the unfamiliar actors playing the townspeople who are really the stars of this episode, and I wouldn’t want to take any focus away from them.
  • The fact that they shot the episode in Iceland also lends to the authentic feel.
  • Even though the particular documentary format of this episode is very straightforward, it feels like the most experimental parody to date. The weirder Documentary Now! goes, the more fun it gets.

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