As performers, Saturday Night Live vets Fred Armisen and Bill Hader couldn’t be more different. Armisen’s characters (from SNL, Portlandia, and across numerous TV guest spots) tend to be more quietly weird whereas Hader ranges toward more exaggerated impressions and characters. They both have the range to switch sides, of course, but generally, these sweet spots work for both individually and when they are paired (once again) on IFC’s Documentary Now! (which returns for its second season tonight). In fact, those performances help elevate the show to the level of near perfect parody.
Co-created by Hader, Armisen, and their former-SNL cohort Seth Meyers, Documentary Now! begins its second season with four episodes (those made available to the press) that take turns servicing Hader and Armisen’s unique skills and sensibilities. With the second episode and the fourth episodes, Armisen’s quirky artistry comes to the fore as he plays a quietly frustrated son struggling to earn his demanding father’s respect in “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” (a riff on Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and a sadsack traveling globe salesman in “Globesman,” an ode to the Maysles brothers’ breakthrough Salesman. Both episodes are written by Meyers, whose working relationship with Armisen extends past his lengthy stint as head writer at SNL to his time as the host of Late Night, where Armisen sometimes leads the band. Clearly, Meyers gets Armisen’s weightier ambitions as those episodes manage to tug at the heartstrings while Armisen explores the frustration that comes from trying to live up to high ideals and chase success, this while, of course, managing to wring laughter out of the more absurd moments associated with each story. Hader helps, in both cases, playing a food author and Armisen’s pitying sidekick, respectively, but the focus is clearly on Armisen.
In “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything,” this season’s third episode, Hader literally takes center stage as Armisen sits one out. Co-written by Hader and writer John Mulaney (who co-created Hader’s most famous SNL character, Stefon, with the actor), this episode parodies Spalding Gray’s autobiographical monologues by undercutting Parker Gail (the Gray stand-in) whenever he tells a part of a larger, meandering story. The episode is comparatively flat, with little of the emotion of the Meyers/Armisen episodes. Hader puts forth a yeoman’s effort by carrying things from the start to the well-executed twist at the end, but despite his ample skills, this one feels more like an elongated bit than a fully realized episode.