The most impressive thing about “Documentary Now,” the Bill Hader/Fred Armisen/Seth Meyers collaboration that’s just launched its second season on IFC, is the attention to detail. In creating these stand-alone tributes to iconic docs like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Grey Gardens,” the team prides itself on accuracy beyond compare for all elements of production, even going so far as using 1920s camera lenses for the first season’s “Nanook of the North” homage, or traveling to Tijuana to capture that edgy “Vice” feel.
That stunning ability to recreate the look and feel of the original documentaries is of course accompanied by jokes. But to some degree, it’s the basic act of recreating the docs with Hader and Armisen in the lead that serves as the primary gag — and it’s now clear that this approach is the show’s biggest flaw.
This comes out in particular after watching “The Bunker,” the Season 2 premiere emulating the 1993 film “The War Room.” Chronicling a fictional 1990s gubernatorial campaign, Hader’s impeccable James Carville impression is put to use as Teddy Redbones, one half of the political operative team trying to get their man elected (Armisen taking the role of George Stephanopoulos stand-in Alvin Panagoulious).
The two scheme to get their candidate elected at any cost, including some dirty tricks that reveal them to be political animals in the truest sense of the word. The plotting is minimalist but there are some fun bits; most importantly, Hader’s performance lives up to Roger Ebert’s description of Carville as “a tense and driven man who seems to shop for his clothes at the LSU sports store.”
That said, there’s no real depth to the execution — and that’s apparently by design. At the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, Hader and Armisen were up front about how deciding to do a politically themed episode actually had very little relationship to the current political climate.
“It’s more of a time piece than anything else. Like, that whole episode isn’t a political piece as much as it is just a take on what ’90s documentaries were,” Armisen said. “But it wasn’t about the politics of it. In fact, the politics — it’s really blurry in [the episode]. There’s no real point to it.”
Added Hader, “I’m sure people will find some correlation between what’s going on now, but we never wanted to make it some big statement on what’s happening now or anything.” In fact, the biggest statement they wanted to make with “The Bunker” was about how “The War Room” influenced shows like “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Office.”
It’s easy to believe this lack of intent, given that “The Bunker” dodges one major aspect of “The War Room” that could have made it alarmingly relevant to the current Presidential campaign. The candidate that Teddy and Alvin are trying to get elected bears no resemblance to Bill Clinton, and his wife invokes no comparison to Hillary.
“The War Room” rarely digs below the public image of the Clinton marriage in 1992 (beyond some long shots of Clinton looking forlorn following scandal eruptions). But both Clintons have a presence, and it’s fascinating to compare the changes that have occurred from then to today. The possibilities of exploring that dynamic in 2016 are fascinating, but “The Bunker” never tries to touch that turf.
“The Bunker” was written by John Mulaney, but it’s almost hard to believe that Seth Meyers is a writer and executive producer on this show, given the smart and sharp way he and the “Late Night” staff have been honing in on real issues this election cycle. “The Bunker” is perfectly enjoyable, with some solid gags (the lawn jockey sequence got the biggest laugh out of me). But while many “Documentary Now!” episodes often verge into one-note joke territory, this is the first one that truly feels like a missed opportunity.
“Documentary Now” not delivering any real depth isn’t quite on the same level as Jimmy Fallon kidding around with his buddy Donald Trump. But it comes down to this: If you have the opportunity to speak to a large platform about one of the most important elections in recent memory, why not use it? Opinions don’t have to be binary. Nuance is possible. What matters is having an opinion. As of writing, there are 52 days left until the 2016 presidential election is due to come to an end. This is not the time for anyone to sit on the sidelines.
In general, the lack of point of view revealed by “The Bunker” speaks to why the show has never been able to find real depth within the surface beauty of its production. It’s a show to admire. It’s too bad it doesn’t really have much to say.
“Documentary Now!” airs Wednesdays on IFC.