IFC has released the second episode of Documentary Now! for free viewing online. A new mockumentary series, the show will take Saturday Night Live alums Fred Armisen and Bill Hader on a satirical tour through every style of documentary imaginable. The series is hosted by Dame Helen Mirren herself, with an intro that makes you think PBS, and while it goes for a veneer of verisimilitude, it has an extremely silly core.
Episode 2, “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon,” is clearly a send-up of Vice-style “gonzo” documentary filming, and it hits its target perfectly. It features Jack Black as a Shane Smith style host, Jamison Friendz, sitting in his Brooklyn open office, bragging about his reporters’ chops and narrating their exploits. Even Vice itself is in on the fun, promoting the episode that skewers its style. Hader and Armisen play three different pairs of Dronez journalists, in different levels of hipster attire (yes, there are mustaches, glasses, and weird shoes).
Vice is a popular target these days, with the perennially hilarious “Vice is Hip” Twitter account continuing to crank out fake headlines that sum up the media company’s popular image:
The Onion is also going after the Vice documentary style in its own series, EDGE. The first episode of that series takes place in Palestine and features its white, flannel-clad reporter asking the residents how they score drugs with all those Israeli checkpoints. It’s a bold and funny video that also underscores how terrible the occupation is, but Armisen and Hader’s goofiness is even funnier.
Even if viewers haven’t seen a single Vice on HBO episode, or watched a clip on the Internet, or even read a Vice article, the Documentary Now! “Dronez” parody still works as a broad spoof, putting insufferably blithe hipster types in dangerous cultural situations — and following through by making sure quite a few of them don’t survive the episode.
For instance: The first pair of gonzo correspondents, Kyle Riley and John Sacks, walk around a perfectly lovely home and comment on its impoverished nature. When they interview the father of a young man who was “disappeared” in the drug wars of his Mexican hometown, Hader and Armisen’s “journalists” describe being equally saddened by the loss of several friends to the Urban Farming craze. When this escapade fails, another pair of “journalists” walk down the streets of Ciudad Juárez, shouting loudly in very loud basic Spanish to ask if people know notorious drug lord El Chingon.
A foil in the form of a New York Times journalist who actually knows what’s she’s doing shows up to indicate what morons these guys (this time, their names are Trevor and Bryce) are. While they brag about their exploits in Ukraine and with various forms of Chinese boxing, she warns them they might die. Ty Dolla Sign also makes a brief, but amusing appearance.
In mocking Vice for being ignorant, drug-obsessed Western tourists, the series manages to stay right on the good side of the line between making fun of the hosts and/or journalists and making fun of the people involved (in this case, the citizens of violence-ravaged Mexican city Ciudad Juárez.)
Finally, when the third group of Vice journalists does finally discover El Chingon (just like they got Bin Laden, by walking in) in his kingpin’s lair, they end up in a coke and machine-gun fueled orgy that makes Scarface look lightweight, and indeed sets up a worthy payoff.
I’m not sure how long the formula can last — after 22 minutes it had pretty much run through its store of humor. But that’s just about perfect for a quick, half-hour comedy. And after having seen this one episode, it makes sense that Armisen and Hader would switch things up and parody other, different documentary styles, many of which will have even more substance to work with.