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“Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter From the Far Side” is less about satirizing the documentary upon which it is based—Dear Mr. Watterson, about the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes—and more about interrogating the very idea of a male, super-fan documentarian. It’s a painstaking account of one man’s descent into narcissism and myopia, a documentary that seems to be for no one at all, fueling a personal journey that has no real thesis. It’s a passion project in the worst sense of the term, an indulgent quest that amounts to little. And yet specifically because this faux documentary says so little, Documentary Now! says a lot here about fan culture and self-centered filmmaking.

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Documentary Now! seems to be asking questions about who gets to make documentaries, intentionally blurring the lines between filmmaker and subject in a way that touches on ideas about male ego. Fred Armisen plays Brad, a character who is like an amalgamation of every film bro you’ve ever met. He’s focused but to an obsessive degree, unable to see beyond his own point of view. “Searching for Mr. Larson” is supposed to be about the creator of the iconic single-panel comic The Far Side, and yet it isn’t at all. Brad is a fan, and he makes his personal investment in the comic the real focus of the film without ever providing much context for why he loves it so much. There’s passion, but there isn’t emotion. Instead, he’s largely driven by his own self-importance.

Brad likes the sound of his own voice; that much is clear. He likes the attention of the camera, which we find out halfway through the episode is being operated by his own father. It’s a strange and delightful twist, one that makes this project all the more disturbing. A father and son have seemingly gone off the deep end in their quest to find an inaccessible artist, and even though they’re working together, there’s no real closeness there.

Brad, in fact, abandoned his family to make this movie. Desperate calls from his wife become increasingly more hilarious as she begs him to give this shit up and come home...to their newborn child. When Brad crowdfunds an obscene amount of money from hungry fans like himself, his wife begs him to ditch the project, pay off his debts, and support his child. But Brad can’t see beyond himself, his fandom all-consuming. It’s an incisive commentary on the way superfans sometimes insert themselves in the work. Brad literally provides an interpretation of a Far Side comic that makes it all about him and his very specific situation. The extent to which he places himself over the art is borderline disturbing. Documentary Now! indeed pushes things very far with this depiction of an obsessive, egotistical filmmaker. Brad’s gone fully mad.

As with most episodes of this show, “Searching for Mr. Larson” alternates between being subtle and on-the-nose. It’s is more muted than most and, at times, less energetic than some of the other installments have been this season, exercising restraint to the point of verging on boring. But the end punches hard, eviscerating Brad and everything he represents. Despite his efforts, he’s too late by the time he eventually, finally finds Gary Larson. PBS has beat him to it. Brad’s quest has been futile, and Documentary Now! is very direct in its critique of his methods, which often cross boundaries. He’s doing it in the name of art, or so he wants you to think. Ultimately, it’s all just about Brad. It’s a clever, funny takedown of a particular kind of filmmaker without being too cynical. Documentary Now! occasionally develops characters that just completely stand on their own, and Brad is certainly one of them. For a fake documentary, this all feels very real.

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Stray observations

  • I’m less familiar with this original doc than I tend to be with the original works the show references, but that ends up being ok here, because it really does feel like Documentary Now! is doing something more standalone than usual.
  • Everything down to Brad’s clothing feels like very deliberate details.
  • The dad reveal is one of the funniest moments of the season.

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