Though the election subject matter made “The Bunker” an obvious candidate for the season premiere, a part of me wishes season two of Documentary Now! had started here, with “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken,” which more strikingly embodies Documentary Now!’s unique strengths. “The Bunker” was undeniably good, but it almost seemed too easy and like Documentary Now! wasn’t quite digging deep enough. Though significantly more understated than the season premiere—especially in terms of the performances—“Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” is actually a funnier episode than “The Bunker,” finding humor in all the right places.
A parody of 2011’s spectacular Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” centers on Juan, a maestro of arroz con pollo, a simple dish with a very complicated process thanks to Juan’s obsessive desire for perfection. Juan serves from a limited menu—coffee, a banana sliced in half, rice with a dollop of butter, and chicken (sometimes)—in his remote three-star Michelin-rated restaurant where no detail goes overlooked. The original documentary, directed by David Gelb, follows a similarly rigid but passionate master of his craft: Jiro Ono, whose acute attention to detail earned his humble sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station the coveted three-star rating. There’s an over-the-top excessiveness to Jiro’s precision, to his compulsive determination to perfect, and Documentary Now! has a lot of fun exaggerating it all. “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” jumps right into the humor, showing a pair of American tourists on their grueling 40-minute trek through the Colombian hills to get to Juan’s restaurant only to find out that there is no chicken being served that day. Juan’s chicken selection process consists of giving himself five minutes to catch a chicken in a pen (if he’s unsuccessful, then fate has spoken and the chicken gets to live). Finding the highest quality ingredients includes a whole slew of seemingly meaningless rituals to which Juan has nonetheless assigned all the meaning in the world. He makes sure every banana feels and sounds right. Every coffee bean is individually examined: Is it your friend or your enemy? It’s deliciously absurd. But just as Juan is unwaveringly precise in his measurements and ingredients, Documentary Now! remains unwaveringly precise in its comedy. There isn’t too much exaggeration or too little; it’s just right. Played as straight as possible, the jokes land effortlessly.
It helps, of course, that Jiro Dreams Of Sushi lends itself perfectly to the Documentary Now! model. Documentary Now! doesn’t try to force humor upon its original subject material. It doesn’t take an existing work and then merely “make it funny.” Instead, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and their writing team find and probe the humor and weirdness that’s already there. All the parts of “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” that seem the most outlandish are some of the parts most strongly rooted in reality. The doc reveals that Juan has increased the massage time for individual chicken breasts gradually from 30 minutes to an hour. In Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, Jiro decides that the octopus must be massaged for a full hour instead of merely 45 minutes. Just about every oddity in “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” acts as a pretty clear analog to a detail from Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. Documentary Now! doesn’t need to add weirdness so much as hold up a mirror to the weirdness that’s already there.
Alexander Buono and Rhys Thomas mimic Jiro director Gelb’s indulgent, delicious camerawork that is hard to describe as anything other than “food porn.” (Gelb continued this style of food filmmaking in his Netflix series Chef’s Table.) They similarly use bold, cinematic camerawork to complement the bravado of the main subject, with a classical score that makes everything all the more lavish. Those technical aspects make “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” a visually and sonically immersive experience. The central characters all speak in Spanish with subtitles, adding to the episode’s authenticity. No detail goes overlooked.
Documentary Now! is always comprehensive when it comes to the particular mechanics of mimicking original works, but that technical precision isn’t what makes Documentary Now! the strange sensation it is. Anybody can ape a particular look and sound. But Documentary Now! gets to the heart of its subject matter, finds what makes the original documentary compelling on a character or story level and then plays with that. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi isn’t just about its mysterious and almost mythical main character; it’s about the complicated relationship between him and his two sons. Here’s where “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” shines, too. Armisen plays Arturo, Juan’s son who has worked for a decade as an apprentice at the restaurant and who’s burdened with the looming task of having to someday take over the family business. Then there’s Diego, the other son who Juan says is dead but in reality is only dead to him, because he left to start his own restaurant that’s in every way the opposite of his father’s. Diego lives freely. His restaurant—Diego’s Fun Restaurant—has no rules other than just having fun and a special house sauce that’s full of Captain Morgan. Arturo, meanwhile, lives by his father’s overbearing rules, having to bury coffee beans in the dirt and bang bags of rice against trees and listen to bananas and shoot chicken breasts from high-powered cannons. As strange as it sounds, the father-son dynamics at play in “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” are grounded and compelling, taking the episode from mere parody to something more. Last week, Armisen and Hader were practically playing bit characters. This week, Armisen delivers a subtle but brilliant performance that resonates on an emotional level.
While Documentary Now! certainly hasn’t shied away from casting big names—Tim Robinson, John Slattery, and Jack Black all appeared in season one—the general approach to casting seems to be less about Armisen and Hader getting all their funniest pals to be on the show (the route a lot of fringe comedies seem to go these days) and more about finding people who are going to look authentic within the world of the documentary and give natural, understated performances. Luis Fernando Hoyos, like Armisen, doesn’t work too hard to try and make Diego a funny character. He plays it straight, and it works. There’s restraint to the performances, which aren’t obviously comedic ones but are funny nonetheless. They’re playing the characters as real people with feelings. Harvey Guillen similarly commits to the role of Manuel, the man with the unfortunate job of having to perfectly half bananas in Juan’s restaurant. He’s as earnest as possible when he describes how long it took before Juan approved his basket of bananas. There’s a sense that these people are much more complex and visceral than players in an elaborate parody, which is why Documentary Now! episodes never really feel like a long-form sketch. The story and the characters are just as important as the humor. “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” ends on a cathartic note, and as usual, Documentary Now! turns out to be far more poignant than it has any right to be.
- As always, I urge you to watch the original documentary if you haven’t already. Jiro is so great.
- This doesn’t usually happen, but Hader was actually the weak link of this episode. There really wasn’t much for him to do, and that accent was…barely passable.
- In the final scene during the credits, Arturo says he feels like his father may have faked the heart attack in order to boost his confidence and Juan then winks at the camera. That moment perfectly encapsulates what I mean by how Documentary Now! plays its parodies as real stories, full of character-driven drama and emotion. It’s weird, but it’s so satisfying.
- Here’s the complete menu for Diego’s Fun Restaurant, where you can get Skittles on your rice: