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Documentary Now!: “Kunuk Uncovered”

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Documentary Now!

"Kunuk Uncovered"

Season 1 , Episode 2

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In a panel discussion hosted by The Atlantic, co-creator Fred Armisen said the Documentary Now! team doesn’t really think of their episodes as mockumentaries. “We just wanted this framework to tell these stories,” he said. “It’s more like a celebration of those styles.” When watching “Kunuk Uncovered,” that reverence is on full display. In both “Sandy Passages” and “Kunuk Uncovered,” Documentary Now! digs into the original source material and critiques it while simultaneously celebrating it. These don’t feel like mockumentaries, especially because of how straight they’re played.

Yes, on a base level, they’re creating fake documentaries. “Kunuk Uncovered,” in fact, is a fake documentary about the making of a fake documentary that’s spoofing Nanook Of The North—a 1922 silent documentary that’s, well, sort of fake. Co-creator Seth Meyers, who wrote the episode, presents a take that exposes Nanook Of The North’s flaws but also tells a story of its own. Again, it’s a lofty undertaking, but “Kunuk Uncovered” pulls it off, working on multiple levels that underline just how smart and multifaceted Documentary Now! is in its approach to parody. It’s another stunningly directed episode, jumping between talking heads and the “original” footage of Kunuk The Hunter, which perfectly mimics the silent-era style of Nanook Of The North.

“Kunuk Uncovered” plays with the controversy of Nanook, which inspired the documentary genre even though most of its most famous shots were staged and manipulated by the director. There’s a lack of authenticity to the ethnography presented in Nanook. In fact, the Inuk man at the center of the film wasn’t even named Nanook. “Kunuk Uncovered” starts from there, with Armisen playing Pipilok, an Eskimo who director William H. Sebastian (played by John Slattery) decides to rename as Kunuk for his film, which starts out as a documentary before it gets twisted into a major staged production that spirals out of control. Even at the most absurd points of “Kunuk Uncovered,” there’s a lot of control and restraint to the way Documentary Now! presents the humor. Tim Robinson, especially, plays Kunuk The Hunter cameraman Barnabas Scott with a weird sense of earnestness and subtlety that makes the jokes even funnier.

“Kunuk Uncovered” is undoubtedly critical of the way Kunuk The Hunter is filmed and, by proxy, the way Nanook is filmed. William H. Sebastian comes off as an arrogant and ignorant prick who cares more about shot composition than actually telling Pipilok’s story. He writes letters full of bravado to his wife that make him sound like a filmic god, even though all the “movie magic” he makes is totally fabricated: When Pipilok can’t properly drive a dogsled, Sebastian nails his hands and feet to it just so he can get a good take.

But “Kunuk Uncovered” also tells its own story on top of its critique of Nanook’s methods, turning Pipilok into a diva who lets the attention get to his head. Suddenly, “Kunuk Uncovered” becomes an even broader critique of documentary and the film industry in general, with Pipilok demanding a craft services table, complaining about looking too old in the footage, and insisting that the crew build a set in order to get a better shot.

“I’m a big film fan,” co-creator Bill Hader said in the Atlantic panel discussion. Hader, Armisen, and Meyers’ love for film comes through in these early episodes of Documentary Now! and makes them feel, as Armisen suggest, like more than just mockumentaries. “Kunuk Uncovered” uses the framework of Nanook Of The North to tell its own story and offer its own point of view. It’s successful on the parody front, but it also stands on its own. Documentary Now! might be one of the strangest comedies on television right now, but it also might be one of the smartest.

Stray observations:

  • Originally, IFC was supposed to air “DRONEZ: The Hunt For El Chingon” tonight, but in the wake of the murders in Virginia this week, the network pulled the episode. “DRONEZ: The Hunt For El Chingon” will air next week.
  • “I am the cold.”
  • Armisen’s excellent physical comedy is on full display in this episode.
  • Slattery gives a great, understated performance throughout.