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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Documentary Now! delivers surprisingly meaningful character arcs

Illustration for article titled Documentary Now! delivers surprisingly meaningful character arcs
Image: Documentary Now! (IFC)
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Documentary Now! turned in a third season full of strikingly character-driven documentaries, and in its finale, it delivers three compelling character arcs within its hilarious sendup of the incredibly mundane and yet very human 2006 bowling documentary A League Of Ordinary Gentlemen. “Any Given Saturday Afternoon” follows the highs and lows of the Professional Bowling League and serves as a glorious time capsule of the early 2000s. It’s yet another Documentary Now! installment that is so comprehensive in its mimicry it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re watching a parody.


In “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” Kevin Dunn’s Rob Seger forces three washed-up professional bowlers into their respective comeback narratives. There’s comeback kid Larry Hawburger (Bobby Moynihan), who lives in his car and only landed a PBL title by default. There’s Rick Kenmore (Tim Robinson), the bad boy whose accidental catchphrase “suck my sack” turns him into a sensation. And then there’s Billy May “Dead Eyes” Dempsey, played by Michael C. Hall in the mockumentary’s best surprise. He’s robotically good at the sport, an incredibly ordinary man who’s scandalized by a house painted white (“what am I, a punk rocker?”) and who doesn’t like Alf because he was “too rude to his host family.” Even sports producer Seger can’t seem to narrativize Dempsey’s bowling arc in a way that’s compelling to fans.

Seger’s positioning of the three men for the reunion tournament is a fun play on the way sports documentaries and films push neatly packaged narratives for its players. The sports tropes throughout the episode are made especially more hilarious because it’s bowling, an easy target for ridicule. I was going to look up some of the terms thrown around by the commentators to see if they’re all real bowling terms, but I realized it doesn’t matter. It’s funny either way. The episode plays it all with a very straight face. Even in its mockery, it’s somewhat restrained, operating as much as a sports doc as a slice-of-life story.

Hawburger, Kenmore, and Dempsey really are deeply human characters, which is ultimately what elevates “Any Given Saturday Afternoon” into more than just a string of jokes about professional bowling and its fans. Behind Kenmore’s bad boy attitude are a ton of daddy issues. He feels that no matter what, he’ll never eclipse the fame of his father’s bowling career, forever living in his shadow, his big personality only able to carry him but so far. Hawburger’s earnestness is tragic. He makes self-deprecating jokes about living in his car, and Moynihan is wonderfully cast in the role, effusive to the point where you really believe in his love for this sport.

Documentary Now! doesn’t just turn Hawburger into cannon fodder for its jokes either. He’s pathetic, to be sure, but it’s also easy to get invested in him? It’s one of those slightly unnerving moments with this show where you suddenly get so immersed in the world it creates that it feels like much more than just a mockumentary. The details Documentary Now! infuses in every part of its production—from character development to filming style to the tone—makes for a truly immersive and layered experience. There’s genuine drama in “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” which only heightens the comedy.

But the standout character and performance really is Dempsey. It’s always fun in a slightly off-putting way to see an actor more known for dramatic work in a comedic role, but Hall is also admittedly fitting here. Those dead eyes that earned Dempsey his disturbing nickname belie a truly harrowing backstory, making Dempsey a little more Dexter than meets the eye. Again, Documentary Now! throws in a genuine twist that, sure, is meant mostly for comedy, but it’s also genuine character development and maybe even a little commentary on the way athletes are publicly consumed with little regard for their actual personhood. Fans don’t care about Dempsey’s trauma. Even Dempsey doesn’t. He stops therapy because it affects his game too much. Athletes always have to be athletes first and people second, and Documentary Now! rather bleakly cuts right to the heart of that reality. Again, this show deftly tackles the issues beneath the topics it lampoons.


Stray observations

  • It was a pleasure to cover another season of this show. I am such a fan of the documentary genre, and I just love how much there is to write about every week.
  • The Alf jokes were so random and yet so funny.
  • The local radio segment snippet is another example of how well this show mimics such specific things. It sounded 100% real.