There’s no question that IFC is the right home for Documentary Now!, the mockumentary series from Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers. This is the network that has kept extremely niche comedies like Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Bang! afloat for many seasons. IFC is a place for the weird and the specific, and Documentary Now! might just be its weirdest and most specific comedy yet—if you can even call it a comedy. Yes, the series is partially born from an SNL sketch from 2013 in which Armisen and Hader played washed-up British punk rock stars. But Documentary Now!, while it certainly has comedic sensibilities, feels more like a rather serious study of and homage to documentary film. And the humor that is there isn’t for everybody.
And I don’t mean that in a “this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea” way. Much of the humor in Documentary Now!’s premiere, “Sandy Passage,” would be lost on someone who hasn’t seen the documentary it’s parodying, Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens is a direct cinema documentary that intimately follows Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together as recluses for decades in a crumbling estate overrun by raccoons and cats.
Documentary Now! changes the name of the estate to Sandy Passage and the characters to Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy. And for most of the episode, that’s about all that changes. “Sandy Passage,” directed by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, perfectly mimics the intimate camerawork of Grey Gardens. The cameramen enter the frame without hesitation, a distinction that made Grey Gardens stand out when it first came out in 1975. For this first episode, it helps that the original subject material is so strange on its own that Meyers, who wrote the episode, doesn’t really have to play with much to make “Sandy Passage” weird. Maybe I’m wrong about the episode not working for people who haven’t seen Grey Gardens, because I could definitely see how someone might laugh at the odd observations and off-hand remarks Hader’s Little Vivvy says without realizing that they’re not very far off from the real Little Edie at all. Hader might just be the best part of the episode. He doesn’t overdo his performance as Little Vivvy. Little Edie has a reality-adjacent quality to her, and Hader brings that same off-kilter quality to Little Vivvy.
Documentary Now! doesn’t need to find the weirdness, because it’s already there. You feel uncomfortable watching Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy, just as Grey Gardens has an unnerving and invasive quality about it. Armisen, Hader, and Meyers’s approach to mockumentary doesn’t rely on just playing up the comedy. Instead, it really does feel like a study, an investigation of how and why documentaries are made. That may sound like a lofty goal for a 20-minute show on IFC, and it no doubt is. But at least with “Sandy Passage,” they mostly succeed, tackling the voyeurism of the original in a way that feels honest and almost critical.
It isn’t until the last couple minutes of the episode that “Sandy Passage” elevates the humor and pushes into the extreme. Over the course of the episode, the guys behind the camera get increasingly nervous about getting so close to Little Vivvy. The fact that she seems to hold such intense grudges—something that was true of Little Edie, as well—unsettles them. Here is where Meyers starts to have fun with the story, turning Little Vivvy into more than just a bizarre recluse. In this version, she’s a vindictive murderer, and the reveal only works because of how much restraint Documentary Now! exercises in the rest of the episode. It’s a very slow build—one that may not hold the attention of people who might be expecting something more along the lines of Hader and Armisen’s punchier work.
- Welcome to TV Club coverage of Documentary Now! I’ve reviewed some niche comedies in the past, but this is a whole new level of weird. Still, I think it will be fun. I’m interested in hearing comments from people who maybe haven’t seen Grey Gardens. How did the episode work for you, if at all?
- I don’t always love when male comedians play women, because they can sometimes overdo it and almost play the whole “look, I’m playing a woman even though I’m a man!” aspect for laughs. That has never been the case for Armisen or Hader, who both bring the same approach to playing female characters as they would any other… which is to say, I barely even think about it when I’m watching them.
- The direction of this episode truly is beautiful.
- Bill Hader looks very good with sweatpants on his head—who knew?!
- The end of the episode genuinely terrified me.
- I can’t believe I didn’t say anything about host Helen Mirren, so here we go: Helen Mirren!!!