‘Documentary now!’ Is TV’s Last Really Carefree Show

On an atypically sunny April morning, an octogenarian actress rested her eyes on a black leather sofa at an Airbnb in Blackpool, a seaside town on England’s northwest coast known for its risky postcards and ramshackle Victorian grandeur. The house, whose aesthetic fell somewhere between canary-yellow joy and acid descent, was actually filled with women grandmothers, immaculately groomed, swaddled in beige knitwear, drinking tea and waiting for their close-ups. Among them, the least groomed was movie star Cate Blanchett, who wore dentures, a permanent orange wig, chunky plastic glasses and a pink nylon apron. “You sure look totally unrecognizable,” her co-star, actress Harriet Walter, told her. “Thank you,” Blanchett answered deadpan.

The two-time Oscar winner, tipped to win a third Oscar next spring for her ferocious performance as a bandleader in Tar-took the day’s work seriously, or as seriously as you can take a nonsensical homage to a 1994 BBC documentary about hairdressers called Three lounges by the sea. She was there because she is one of the people who bought into the vision of Documentary now!the obscure passion project imagined by a team of saturday night live veterans almost 10 years ago. The series amounts to a long joke between friends: it’s a sincerely affectionate tribute to the history of cinema and a regular meeting for people whose schedules are filled with obligations such as embarking on world comedy tours, hosting late night talk shows., and working on Marvel TV spin-offs. “I’m really glad everyone is enjoying it,” Alex Buono, one of the show’s directors, told me. “I feel like it’s a show we’re doing to amuse each other.”

There are two remarkable things about Documentary now! The first is that it works at all – that a series whose focus mixes comedic parody and genuine homage doesn’t get lost in esotericism. The other is that, thanks to the power and prestige of its creative team (which includes Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, John Mulaney, Buono and director Rhys Thomas), it’s probably the last truly carefree show on television. Everyone does what they want, and we viewers can see what bizarre, magical art that kind of creative freedom can manifest – like the sight of Blanchett, shy and mute, furiously tugging a hairbrush through a man’s hair. an old woman.

“There’s not a shred of value in that, you know?” Blanchett told me between takes. “And it’s so dynamic. Often you can get bogged down trying to perfect things. The deliberate imperfection of this series is truly brilliant. She was also struck by the care that Meyers, who wrote the episode, had for the source material: “It was amazing how much Seth understood the language and atmosphere of [Three Salons]being an American describing the experience of older women in 1994.” (When I relayed this to Meyers later, he said it was the “highest possible praise” he could imagine.) The series is comic perhaps, but it is sincerely devoted to documentary and to what documentary captures better than any other art form: the extravagant and fascinating spectacle of humanity.

If the new season of Documentary now! has a theme, it’s the passion of projects more generally – confusing, uncompromising plans dreamed up by confusing, uncompromising people. In a two-part episode, Alexander Skarsgård plays a director named Rainer Wolz (a slightly fictionalized Werner Herzog), who has a regal demeanor, an absurd German accent, and a plan to use a trip capturing native communities in a desolate region in Russia. to also somehow run a CBS sitcom called Single nanny. (The episode is largely based on Herzog’s documentary The burden of dreams.) Another pays homage to French New Wave director Agnès Varda and her films Agnès Beaches and Faces Places, in which she revisits her life through a kind of cinematic scrapbooking. There’s one inspired by the Oscar-winning boxing documentary When we were kings which follows a legend in the (fictional) Welsh sport of stone throwing. And there’s a parody of the Oscar-winning documentary My octopus teacher called My Monkey Scammer which also manages to nod to the conventions of morally dubious true-crime series.

In each episode, the commitment to a vanity is accompanied by a visual verisimilitude: the exact granularity of the images, the nuances of the language, even the spiritual atmosphere of a scene. When the creators first imagined the series, Armisen told me, “We maybe had different ideas for it. For me, that’s what I wanted [the episodes] to be convincing. That someone could look at it and say, “I think it’s real.” Even people might have arguments about it. (When we spoke, he was wearing a David Lee Roth-esque wig and a starchy blue uniform for his small but vital role as barber shop postman George.)

The idea of ​​paying homage to Three lounges by the sea, a documentary so obscure it seems to exist only in a blurry and probably illegal YouTube recording, came from Blanchett. She made him Documentary now! debut in Season 3, playing a performance artist (based on Marina Abramović) whose career consisted of running around a gallery with a bucket on her head and howling like a cat. (The episode, with its insight and jubilant ending, is one of the most memorable bits of television I’ve ever seen.) While filming the show Mrs America, in which she played conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, Blanchett spent a lot of time getting her hair done in Schlafly’s unchanging waves. Her stylist recommended Three lounges when discussing what hair salons can mean to women – how they can be a place of refuge, a community center, a place of healing. “Even though it’s set in Blackpool and I’m from Melbourne, watching it felt like stepping back into my childhood,” Blanchett said. “Because my grandmother lived with us and I spent my whole childhood in [the hair salon] Ezio of Rome– she said it so emphatically that everyone in the room burst out laughing – “around all these old women. Between there and the croquet club. I just fell in love with it.

For the result “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport”, Meyers decided to combine the salon concept with The September issueRJ Cutler’s column of vogue and the charged relationship between the magazine’s longtime editor, Anna Wintour, and its former creative director, Grace Coddington. Harriet Walter plays Edwina, the immaculate owner of Edwina’s Salon, and Blanchett is Alice, a kind but clumsy helper who goes to work for Edwina after her bricklayer husband is killed by a falling pile of bricks. The jokes persist – Edwina, ordering a sandwich, is offered options of “butter and pickle, tomato mayonnaise, and ham with vinegar”, and a collection jar is handed out to someone named Mary, who “has been kidnapped . Still.”

As with other Documentary now! episodes, however, the precision with which “Two Hairdressers” emulates its source material is remarkable, right down to filming in one of the original locations, an almost identical score, identical shots of hair rolled up on rollers and a roller B corresponding to a roller skater rattling loudly in the street. “The original has such a sweet tone; it’s a very innocent and humorous thing,” Walter told me. “I was afraid we’d kind of send it off, or a little condescending or something.” A different show could have been. But Three lounges by the sea (directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, who went on to win a BAFTA for her work on Call the midwife) is determined to portray the dignity of his subjects in the midst of hardship, and Documentary now! was equally determined to do the same.

Later that afternoon, I watched Walter shoot a scene in which Edwina talks about the importance of the living room. “These women have all had difficult lives,” she says, her eyebrows furrowed. “And that’s where we’re supposed to make life a little bit better for them.” Walters crossed the stage several times; she suggested using the word ladies instead of women, to evoke more intimacy. (ladies was indeed part of the final cut.) “For us, at least,” Rhys Thomas told me, “you really forget about the audience. In a fun way. That’s also the beauty of documentaries, that they are real life. The second the show starts trying to move away from “truth” and into comedy, he thinks, is the second it falls apart. But this is not yet the case.

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