While it’s easy to understand why a little network like IFC would be enamored with programs that features former “Saturday Night Live” stars, that’s a poor excuse for turning what would have been sketches from the show’s last 30 minutes into full-blown series. So after Will Ferrell’s adventures with “The Spoils of Babylon” and its sequel comes “Documentary Now!,” which should produce peals of laugher among, oh, 12 to 15 people. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader serve as producers (along with Seth Meyers) and performers, but despite the occasional chuckle, the jokes seem too inside for their own good.
Actually, the series peaks in its opening credits and introduction, which cleverly approximate the fictional public-TV documentary showcase from which the show derives its name. Helen Mirren, no less, strides out to soberly describe each week’s offering – presented under a shingle that has brought viewers such fare, she notes, “for the last 50 years.”
From there, though, “Documentary Now!” becomes an exceedingly hit-miss proposition, with Armisen and Hader playing the key roles in spoofs of “Grey Gardens,” the silent classic “Nanook of the North” and a more contemporary spin on the “Vice” niche, with Jack Black as the blustery patriarch and a lot of hippy-dippy correspondents who think nothing of wandering into war zones.
The challenge is that for this sort of parody to work requires at least some familiarity with the source, and while a handful of film students might howl at, say, the “Nanook” riff, or the arty shots of blowing curtains in the “Grey Gardens” knockoff, much of the target audience will likely have to take the producers’ word for it. Sure, there’s something to be said for being dryly funny, but “Documentary Now!” is so committed to the exercise as to risk feeling practically arid.
Directed by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, the series — which not surprisingly grew out of the principals’ collaboration on “SNL” — is described as an homage to these films, and it certainly feels that way. To the extent it might move a few people to actually go see the inspiration for some of the episodes, hey, serious documentarians need all the help they can get.
Yet while one can understand Armisen and Hader’s interest in scratching this student-film-like itch – especially with someone else’s money – it’s hard to feel quite so charitable toward IFC. Granted, recognizable faces can yield dividends, but the channel continues to squander its original-programming resources on too many oddities and trifles, and, from a distance, looks too star-struck to know when to say no.