Thursday, December 22, 2016


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this #7.


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Bill Hader is one of the most unassuming comic geniuses of our time.  Fred Armisen is one of the most assuming, but also insanely prolific and a remarkable actor that has somehow never inflicted a serious dramatic turn upon us.  The sheer range of passive-aggression he displays on Portlandia alone is amazing, particularly considering the limited milieu in which that show operates.  But Documentary Now! opens up not just the range of performance available to SNL alums (also including John Mulaney and Seth Meyers on the writing/producing side), but of style and subject matter as well.  Each episode of DN! is a lovingly, expertly crafted homage to a particular documentary, recreating the look, feel, and spirit of a Talking Heads concert film, a Japanese culinary documentary, or an unpitying look at the quiet desperation of door-to-door salesmen in the 1950s.  Entire episodes may be shot in black and white, or on handheld cameras, or presented in Spanish.  The look, sound, and atmosphere are recreated with uncanny precision and subtlety that will delight documentary-cinema geeks, but matters just as much for casual viewers.  Whether I have seen each doc or not, whether I’m actively aware of it or not, the authentic feel permeates every frame with a specificity that allows the most minor of comedic tweaks to earn bigger laughs. 

You could see the same effect in years past with Key And Peele.  The fussed-over production of their taped pieces allowed their parodies to hit notes that you just don’t get when SNL hastily trots out Bryan Cranston in a Heisenberg hat to parrot a few iconic lines for a cold open.  The latter produces titters of recognition; the former can surprise you with the familiar, by blindsiding you with a recreation of a quirk you never knew you’d noticed in the first place.  Such that you don’t need to know who Spaulding Gray is exactly to recognize the myopic artiste-type Hader is playing to the hilt in “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”, or be intimately familiar with the Maysles’s Salesman (I wasn’t) to appreciate the nuances of despair that Armisen brings to a salesman aptly nicknamed “The Possum”.  The filmmaking plugs you into the characterization before the actors even open their mouths. 

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Watch It For:  The sneaky emotional payoffs, like the shockingly sweet conclusion to “Juan Loves Rice And Chicken”.  Or just for the Hader impressions we've been missing since he left SNL, as the premiere and finale give extended spotlights for his takes on James Carville and Robert Evans (featuring such astute bitchery as "Chariots Of Fire - which at best is a soundtrack your mother has in her car...").  God, I hope we never lose him permanently to "serious" acting.

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