Documentary Now!

Returning for its second—ahem, 51st—season, Documentary Now! takes on a topic surely no one is sick of at this point in 2016: American elections. Doc Now dream team Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader all insisted earlier this summer at the Television Critics Association press tour that “The Bunker”—the show’s send-up of 1993’s The War Room—has nothing to do with today’s political climate, and that turns out to be true. “The Bunker” is a pure homage to its original source material and, more broadly, an homage to the 1990s. Hader and Armisen churn out uncanny impressions of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, respectively, and the direction successfully captures the tone and look of The War Room.

“The Bunker” capitalizes on nostalgia. It effectively builds a bunker around itself to keep out any connection to today’s political climate. And as is usually the case for Documentary Now!, it’s not skewering so much as paying tribute, celebrating a specific time and place without romanticizing it. A large part of what makes the series great is its apparent love for the forms it imitates. John Mulaney loves true crime, and that was apparent in his brilliant take on true crime last season. With “The Bunker,” he yet again crafts a script that plays it straight, using slight embellishments here and there to up the weird factor. “We were thinking about documentaries we love, and The War Room was one that everyone on the show is a fan of, and it seemed like the right time do it, because it’s an election year,” Meyers said at IFC’s upfronts this year. While watching “The Bunker,” the creators’ reverence for the original documentary comes through crystal clear.

There’s a deep understanding here of what made The War Room so compelling in the first place: It was about the behind-the-scenes players. “The Bunker” is dark and cynical about the realities of dirty behind-the-scenes campaign work, and it brilliantly captures The War Room’s significance in documentary history: the shift toward campaign strategists becoming celebrities in their own right. The War Room was technically about Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for president, but it was more so about Carville and Stephanopoulos. Likewise, in “The Bunker,” the bumbling candidate in the Ohio gubernatorial race the episode centers on is inconsequential. It’s all about the “Mississippi Machiavelli” Teddy Redbones (Hader) and the “boy-hunk of the Beltway” Alvin Panagoulis (Armisen). “The Bunker” doesn’t sugar-coat its depiction of these anti-heroes at all. While the Documentary Now! team is certainly reverent of the filmmaking behind The War Room, they remain crucially critical of the seemingly soulless puppeteers behind political campaigns, which is embodied best in a scene where the strategists all discuss the campaign’s latest attack ad.

“Sandy Passage” similarly took on a very well known documentary and changed very little about it. Like “Sandy Passage,” “The Bunker” saves its more dramatic departure from the original source material for the end, and the extremities of Redbones’ become the perfect gateway for Documentary Now! to get absurd and put its own stamp on the story. But until that moment, there’s immense restraint in Mulaney’s script. Carville and Stephanopoulos are eccentric characters in and of themselves, so Redbones and Panagoulis practically write themselves, especially with Hader and Armisen’s unwavering commitment.

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“The Bunker” keeps actual politics out of the equation, focusing more on these over-the-top characters who will do whatever it takes to win the election—even shoot themselves in the leg. It’s a character-driven story that’s specific enough in its tone and setting that it actually stands on its own as something completely untied to the current election cycle we’re buried in. It’s about chaotic, manipulative campaign tactics, but it somehow actually provides an escape from the chaotic, manipulative campaign tactics at play in the real world right now. “The Bunker” just pure, simple, meticulously crafted nostalgia that feels timeless, so it exists outside of today’s political dumpster fire. And thank goodness it does, because who among us does not have 2016 election fatigue at this point? “The Bunker” is an earnest time capsule. The scene of Redbones and Panagoulis gathered around a kitchen table with their fellow strategists, laughing over newspaper coverage of themselves is ripped right from The War Room with few changes, but it succinctly captures the original documentary’s casual yet intimate perspective. The sets, costuming, and direction all perfectly evoke the 1990s. It’s a passionate tribute to one of the greatest campaign documentaries ever made.

In its second season premiere, Documentary Now! does what it does best, paying so deep an homage to a specific time and place that it feels like this episode was truly made then and there. IFC keeps calling this the 51st season of the series, and I’m starting to see that as not merely a joke but rather an acknowledgement that Documentary Now! so often exists outside of linear time.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back, Documentary Now! I love you so much, you weirdo.
  • This episode is very technically impressive.
  • Hader’s take on Carville is so different here than it was in his recurring Carville impression on Saturday Night Live—and that’s a good thing. The Carville seen in The War Room was much different than the media personality he went on to become—unhinged in different ways. Hader’s attention to details is impeccable.
  • By the way, go watch The War Room if you haven’t. It’s my second favorite campaign documentary, after 2005’s Street Fight.
  • The campaign ad discussion was undoubtedly the funniest part.

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