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.
Tonight’s premiere, “The Bunker,” on the other hand, is on par with the Grey Gardens-inspired “Sandy Passage,” which kicked off season one. Based on The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ look inside the inner working of Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the White House, “The Bunker” is, of course, aided by the show’s signature obsession with detail. Directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas (two more with behind-the-scenes experience on SNL) evoke several key moments from the original, an area in which Documentary Now! consistently excels. It’s not just the shot-for-shot recreation of the film’s opening moments or a bent recreation of Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos’ gentle over-the-phone strongarm routine by Armisen, it’s the way that the font on the soda machine lines up and Hader oddly wearing one glove in a meeting like James Carville did.
Though “The Bunker” doesn’t push away from its subject matter in as aggressive a manner as “Sandy Passage” (brilliantly) does at the end, Mulaney, who writes the episode, finds a brilliant way to diverge from the source material. Rather than lean in and ride the easy wave Clinton jokes, Mulaney instead puts Armisen and Hader’s characters in charge of a reluctant politician and kindly grandpa who is little more than a puppet for the darkly Machiavellian campaign advisors while shifting Clinton’s charming horndog persona to a version of Stephanopoulos who’s clearly in love with his own good press. Armisen is playful yet mellow, and almost boyish in the role, mimicking his subject well, but Hader simply performs at such a high level it’s sometimes hard to remember he’s playing a part.
Asking Bill Hader to play James Carville almost feels like cheating due to his familiarity with the “character” from his time on SNL, but it’s the audience’s good fortune that he’s game. Armed with a fake bald spot, a recreation of Carville’s dreadful early ’90s wardrobe (in fairness, an awful time for fashion), and amplified versions of Carville’s many verbal and facial tics, Hader is capable of inspiring laughter with a simple look. With beady eyes and a wide grin that almost seems to reveal three rows of jagged teeth, Hader alternates his gaze between that of a hungry, horny possum to one who is clearly in attack mode when he surveys a crowd. But the look has nothing on how unpredictable the character is.
From a take on The War Room‘s boasts about stealing rival candidate’s signs that turns into the random placement of racist lawn jockeys, to the line, “I like my blackjack dealers to be celebrity impersonators” before Hader climbs into what can only be described as the Roy Orbison mobile, everything feels like a sneak attack. And that ability to disarm is the show’s true charm. Hader, Armisen, Meyers, and the rest of the Documentary Now! team toying with us all by convincing us that these are seamless tributes to documentaries whose stories are naturally captivating — then it features a scene like Hader and Armisen trying to cut time from a campaign commercial that doubles as an unsubtle death threat or reveals two shut-ins as vicious murderers. It’s comedy absent a neon sign and an obvious “here it comes” moment. It’s laughter when you least expect it and it lingers because of that artfully constructed set-up.
Documentary Now! returns tonight on IFC at 9 p.m. ET. Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.