In its first four episodes, Documentary Now! has proven its painstaking attention to detail as well as its ambition. Documentary Now! seeks to parody works that aren’t easy to parody. There’s nothing overtly comedic about the documentaries co-creators Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers choose to skewer. In fact, they intentionally choose works that aren’t already comedic in nature. “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” a parody of the 1988 true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line, is the most stark example yet of Documentary Now! finding humor in unlikely places. There’s nothing inherently funny about a man being sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, but Documentary Now! finds exactly what and who to target to make the satire both piercingly smart and funny.
Written by Hader and John Mulaney, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” blends dramatic re-enactments with talking-head-style interviews with the main players, just like the original. Mulaney, whose love of the true-crime genre is well documented in his standup, is the perfect guy to pen this script, and the small changes he makes to the original story heighten the humor. The biggest change here turns the killed police officer of the real story into a goofy sign spinner, which leads to pretty solid payoff in the form of dramatic, slow-motion shots of a dude spinning a car wash sign right before he’s gunned down. In “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” Don Lentile’s (Armisen) alibi relies on the fact that he was watching Mama’s Family at the time of the murder. In real life, it was The Carol Burnett Show. But even that small shift works to make the situation all the more ridiculous.
There’s some distinctly Mulaney weirdness, like the trail mix bit—one of the episode’s most overtly funny parts. But the jokes only really work because of the direction. Just as with previous episodes, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” pays meticulous attention to detail from start to finish. The Documentary Now! team actually got their hands on the exact lenses used to shoot The Thin Blue Line, so the cinematography is spot-on. The officer explaining his frustration with Don’s neverending supply of trail mix is funny enough on its own, but the stylized shot of the trail mix hitting the wall takes it to the next level. “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” relies on the same close-ups and artistic shots to build suspense that The Thin Blue Line uses, but inserts goofy details that throw it off just ever so slightly, like a creamsicle flying out of an officer’s hands, the aforementioned sign spinning, and the inflatable dancing car wash thingy.
The direction and writing certainly make “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” an immersive experience, but it would be a major oversight to discuss the episode’s success as a parody without noting Hader’s outstanding performance. Here’s where seeing the original definitely adds to the experience: Hader nails his impression of David Ray Harris—fictionalized to be Robbie Wheadlan here—just as he nails his impression of Little Edie in “Sandy Passages.” It’s easy to overlook the acting on something as stylistic and artful as Documentary Now!, but there’s no question that Hader’s impressive ability to slip into any character. He gives his approach to character work the same amount of detail as Documentary Now! gives to the direction and editing.
Documentary Now! successfully finds the ridiculousness of the story by laying into the very poor policework that’s also on display in the original documentary. The Thin Blue Line makes a very clear case for Randall Adams’s innocence and David Ray Harris’s guilt, and “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” just turns that obviousness up a few notches. “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” goes to great lengths to show that Don’s a liar and that Robbie basically just got blamed for the crime because everyone thinks he sucks. Again, Documentary Now! works on more levels than just comedy, exploring how the way a story is framed influences perceptions as well as playing with serious flaws in the criminal-justice system.
It’s all pretty evocative of The Jinx, which owes a lot of its filming style to The Thin Blue Line. According to Meyers, The Jinx premiered too late for Documentary Now! to take it on. With two more seasons on the horizon, it’s possible that the series could parody the HBO true-crime miniseries late on, but I sort of hope it doesn’t. “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” allows Documentary Now! to play with some of the same tropes and quirks of The Jinx without directly referencing it. Documentary Now! certainly succeeded with playing with fresher material in its Vice parody, but the show works best when it takes on something that has had more time to breathe. The Thin Blue Line is a classic, and Documentary Now! pays as much tribute to it as it picks it apart.
- The episode recognizes that no one ever knows what to call those dancing dude things. Documentary Now! does with “blow-up car wash inflatable thingy.”
- It has been a while since I last watched The Thin Blue Line, but I believe the trail mix part is a bizarre analog for the fact that Randall Adams smoked two whole packs of cigarettes while in police custody? Correct me if I’m wrong.
- The final scene is another brilliant recreation of the original, and as a bonus we get to hear Mulaney’s voice asking the questions.
- !JAZZ! and I <3 PUSS are up there with the trail mix as some of the best visual gags of the episode.