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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Documentary Now! season finale plays its parody as real

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Since its pilot—an eerily accurate parody of the the 1975 documentary Grey GardensDocumentary Now! has been an ambitious undertaking for co-creators Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas. Every week promises a completely new subject and form as the IFC series works its way through various seminal documentaries and satirizes them with such specificity that it’s sometimes easy to forget the documentaries of Documentary Now! are faked. They’re not really mockumentaries in the traditional sense. There are no smiles or winks at the camera. And the Documentary Now! team isn’t mocking so much as unpacking. There’s a sense that everyone on board has a strong love of film, and that reverence comes through in the attention to detail. But at the same time, the parodies find ways to not only pay tribute but also critique some of the specific conventions and motivations behind documentary storytelling. The two-part season finale, “Gentle & Soft: The Story Of The Blue Jean Committee” combines all the defining characteristics of one of the weirdest new shows of this summer.

Inspired by the award-winning History Of The Eagles, “Gentle & Soft” has the most moving parts of any Documentary Now! episode. Whereas most of the episodes have only dealt with a few locations—or in the case of “Sandy Passage,” only one set, really—“Gentle & Soft” bounces around a lot. As it tells the tale of the fictional short-lived blues sensation The Blue Jean Committee, “Gentle & Soft” bounces between founding member Clark’s (Hader) Malibu mansion, the Chicago sausage factory where founding member Gene (Armisen) works, as well as archival-style footage of Clark and Gene in the recording studio, playing various gigs, and growing up in the sausage world of Chicago. The episode also intersperses talking heads and photos of BJC, all contributing to a very real-looking documentary. As with “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” it doesn’t really matter what “Gentle & Soft” is spoofing. It stands on its own and uses a very familiar style of documentary filmmaking.

True to their Saturday Night Live roots, Hader and Armisen have played a vast range of characters throughout the first season of Documentary Now!, but it’s not only their chameleonic abilities that allow them to slip into character after character after character. The hair and makeup team for Documentary Now! has been an essential component of the show’s high-quality production value. That’s certainly true of “Gentle & Soft.” The hair and makeup team have perfectly transformed Hader into a classic Malibu douchebag and Armisen into a washed-up, average-looking Chicago dude.

“Gentle & Soft” also brings in a whole slate of incredible guests—the real-life people you’d likely find in a documentary about a blues band, including Daryl Hall, Cameron Crowe, Chuck Klosterman, Kenny Loggins, Irving Azoff, and all three members of Haim. Their mere presence lends to the authenticity of “Gentle & Soft,” but on top of it all, they also excellently play their talking heads as straight as possible. Kudos to the Haim sisters for selling the hell out of their love of a band that doesn’t even exist. Again, the groundedness of all of the interviews just sort of made me forget that what I was watching wasn’t a real documentary about real people. Documentary Now! has the unsettling ability to blur those lines.

And then part two of “Gentle & Soft” comes around, and things start to get weird—in a good way. Much like “Sandy Passage” builds slowly to its eventual over-the-top ending, “Gentle & Soft” eases viewers into its absurdity. Of course, along the way, there are some truly silly parts, especially as the episode really digs into Chicago with highly specific regional jokes. And there’s also the little detail of Clark and Gene meeting in sausage school. But still, for the most part, the first half hour of “Gentle & Soft” is played pretty straight, establishing a sense of realism. That only makes it even more effective in part two when the nexus of BJC’s decline turns out to be a show Gene and Clark agreed to play without realizing it was for, gasp, an animal rights group. Gene and Clark, longtime sausage guys thanks to their cliché Chicago upbringing, are horrified at the idea of playing for a bunch of California bozos who think meat is murder. “I just didn’t want to turn my back on the sausage community,” Gene says. Again, Hader and Armisen play their outrage and confusion with complete sincerity, which only heightens the bit. It’s absurd, but it still unfolds as so believable within the world “Gentle & Soft” constructs. It’s very carefully calculated absurdity, and it never spirals far enough to lose the very simple mechanics of its story.

Because at the end of the day, “Gentle & Soft” does tell a story. Much like with “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” I found myself becoming oddly invested in the narrative and its characters. The tension between Gene and Clark in the studio is palpable. Hader and Armisen give fully committed performances, and I truly cared about what might happen when Gene and Clark reunite after years of not speaking to each other at their hall of fame induction ceremony. It’s crushing when the two guys stand around after receiving their award, awkwardly making promises to try to see one another in Chicago—promises they both know they won’t keep. Then Gene goes back to his repetitive life at the sausage factory and Clark goes back to his lonely mansion full of BJC relics to remind him of his lonely life. Look! I’m getting emotional! About this fake-ass band from a documentary parody. Documentary Now! has done some strange things, but the strangest of them all has been its ability to tell real stories with real emotions, packaged as a parody. For being a show about faked documentaries, Documentary Now! gets very real.


Stray observations

  • Thus ends the first season of Documentary Now!. Now seems like a good time to say that I love the title of this show. It’s so ridiculously urgent.
  • I know I rarely mentioned her, but Helen Mirren was truly the perfect host for this strange little show. I shall never forget the time she said “ballz to the wallz.”
  • Clark’s songwriting brainstorm when trying to make an album about California: 1. Sand song 2. Seagull song 3. Beachball(s)? 4. Another sand one
  • Clark: “So I’m walking out of Binny’s with a twelver of Old Style.” Man, “Gentle & Soft” really nails its jokes at the expense of Chicago.
  • Clark: “I think the Rolling Stone review just said ‘no.’”
  • Clark: “Falsetto is a very phallic form of singing.”
  • Can you tell I really liked Clark?
  • This was such a fun show to cover, and I’m very pleased IFC has already renewed it for an additional two seasons.