Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are a rarity in the comedy world: funny people with hearts of gold.
It was obvious all those years when they were cast members on Saturday Night Live. They handled their characters — whether living, dead or purely fictional — with a visible sweetness. Think Hader playing Vincent Price as the exasperated host of throwback holiday TV specials or Armisen donning drag and playing the Queen of England as a Cockney hard man. Even when they were cracking each other up as upper-class beach bums during those “Californians” sketches, neither displayed a malicious streak — their characters believed they were doing things with a dignified poise.
This tradition continues in the second season of Documentary Now!, currently airing on IFC. This sendup of long-running, public-TV documentary programs (the show is now in its “51st season”) has Helen Mirren — that silver-fox honey — introducing a documentary at the top of every episode. What follows are spot-on parodies of classic documentaries, always featuring Armisen and/or Hader. Last season, they parodied Grey Gardens (with Armisen and Hader doing dead-on takes of Big Edie & Little Edie, respectively), The Thin Blue Line and — my favorite — Nanook of the North, with Armisen playing the lead Eskimo as a dunderheaded diva and Hader, covered in prosthetics, as an elderly cameraman recalling the shoot.
Yes, Documentary Now! gives Armisen and Hader the chance to play the same oddballs they used to play on SNL, but in a more extended, nuanced manner. They’re given more time and space to give a well-rounded portrayal to each character they embody, capturing their euphoric highs and embarrassing lows. Hader appears to have a great time disappearing into each character he plays. Armisen may not be as chameleonic, but he excels at buffoons with tender artistic sides. If anything, Documentary Now! shows how much the two love people, as they play as many as they possibly can. That fascination with everyday life and behavior is something they share with the documentarians whose work they so lovingly lampoon.
This season, Documentary turns to“The Bunker,” the season opener, an amusingly on-the-nose recreation of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ 1993 look at then-campaign strategists George Stephanopoulos and James Carville as they worked to get Bill Clinton into the White House. For “Bunker,” Armisen plays the Stephanopoulos stand-in, complete with boyish hair and an affinity for rating supermodels, while Hader (who already perfected a Carville impersonation on SNL) is Teddy Redbones, a fixer who has no qualms getting shot in order to make his candidate’s opponent look bad. As always, Armisen, Hader and directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono pay close attention to the details of the movies they’re mocking — “Bunker” is a pitch-perfect facsimile, right down to the wardrobe choices (Armisen rocking a Stephanopoulos-style denim jacket, Hader wearing the same, lone black glove Carville weirdly wore for one scene) — and using them for their own comic gain.
Just like last season, Documentary tilts between being relentlessly ridiculous and subtly sweet. “Bunker” is one of the season’s more farcical eps, along with “Parker Gail’s ‘Location Is Everything,’” a parody of Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia. (Demme happens to be this season’s most ridiculed documentarian; an episode on the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is coming up.) “Location” features a bravura performance from Hader, who is mostly center stage as an exaggerated version of the late monologist Spalding Gray, telling a story and going off on tangents as other people who were involved (his girlfriend, his parents, a subway-booth employee) give their own, more accurate takes. (Both “Bunker” and “Location” are written by John Mulaney, best known for being the writer who would come up with insane stuff that made Hader crack up when he played Stefon back on SNL.)
This second season's most endearing episodes so far (which are also written by co-creator/executive producer/current Late Night host Seth Meyers) are “Globesman,” obviously a sendup of the Maysles Brothers’ black-and-white portrait Salesman, and “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” which recreates the foodie favorite Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Both feature Armisen as a character who may not be good at his job — in “Globesman,” he‘s a guy who rarely lands a sale selling globes; in “Juan,” he’s the son of a perfectionist restaurateur from Colombia — but still does his damnedest to get that job done. Each episode gets ridiculous, but they both end on a redeeming, surprisingly poignant note, much like the “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” two-parter from last season. These episodes remind you that, as with the documentaries they’re based on, they’re still about people, with all their flaws and faults, and on their individual journeys.