Last week, while discussing Documentary Now!’s fourth season premiere, I wrote at some length about the show’s tendency toward synthesis—the idea of jamming two big, silly ideas drawn from the vast world of non-fiction filmmaking together, and seeing if they make something more, or at least something funnier, than the sum of their parts. Tonight’s sophomore installment of the season, “Two Hairdressers In Bagglyport,” isn’t that kind of Documentary Now! episode, though—even if early press releases cited two wildly disparate documentaries as its inspiration.
No, this is the other kind of Documentary Now! episode: One of those ones where directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas, and writer Seth Meyers, have narrowed down their taste for specific recreation to such a fine point that there are any number of scenes from tonight’s episode that you could probably slip back into the original work, with very few people the wiser. (Whether that sort of hyper-faithful recreation leaves the episode with a sufficiently strong identity of its own…well, we’ll get to that in a minute.)
The source material, in this case, being Philippa Lowthorpe’s 1994 TV movie Three Salons At The Seaside, an examination of the lives of a number of elderly women, as filtered through their rituals and regimens at their hairdressers’ in Blackpool, England. Low-key, gentle, and a little mournful, Lowthorpe’s film is an utterly gorgeous slice of human existence, with its subjects melancholy and funny in equal measure as they recount tales of family, the allure of duty-free shopping, and an absolutely enormous number of stricken or dead husbands. (It’s also only 40 minutes long, and floating around freely on YouTube, if you need something else to watch tonight.)
“Bagglyport” pares things back to just one salon, and drops Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter into the center of it, but beyond that, the premise is essentially the same: Watching women reflect on their lives in a space that would be sacrosanct, if it wasn’t so deliberately open and warm. Meyers’ script amps up the absurdity where it can—a conversation about the “death book” the salon keeps to track people’s passings (a real holdover from Three Salons) includes a runner from Walter about a notorious black widow who used to frequent the shop, and the periodic postcards from clients abroad evolves into a very gentle kidnapping plot that’s quite funny in the banal responses it provokes. But all involved are so beholden to the soft tone of the original work that there’s only so far that any one thing can go.
That includes the one deviation “Bagglyport” takes from the overall non-plot of Three Salons, and the other source of inspiration the show’s producers have cited for tonight’s episode: R.J. Cutler’s 2009 doc The September Issue, here represented by the production of the salon’s annual look book, with Walter’s Edwina standing in for hyper-meticulous Vogue editor Anna Wintour. (The town’s photographers apparently hate her guts.)
The September Issue is not an especially cold film, as it happens; Cutler and his crew even managed to eke some genuine human moments from the closely guarded Wintour. But it has a sharpness that cannot survive in the warm glow of “Bagglyport,” an eroding effect that ends up leaving the whole endeavor with the style book feeling more like an extended, ultimately sweet subplot than anything else. (If we’re meant to see something of Wintour and former Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, whose prickly, artistically passionate relationship forms the core of Cutler’s film, in the interactions between Edwina and Cate Blanchett’s Alice, it’s been diluted down to undetectability.)
None of which, I’d like to be clear, is to suggest that “Two Hairdressers In Bagglyport” isn’t good. It’s very good: warm and bright and funny and refreshing, a lovely palate cleanse from the heightened absurdity of last week’s episodes. But it does raise the question of whether it’s good in ways that are distinct from the qualities it lifts wholesale from 3 Salons At The Seaside. The Documentary Now! crew clearly have a deep affection for the original film—the number of perfectly recreated shots, from the distinctive rounded parking lot of a salon, to the repeated interstitials of a little girl skating past the shop, to the loving way the women’s hair is photographed, is genuinely surreal—but it leaves them with very little to get a handle on of their own.
Blanchett, in her second Doc Now! outing, disappears with practiced ease into Alice, who casually rattles off her own husband’s tragic death in one of the episode’s funniest moments. Walter, meanwhile, displays none of the venom familiar from Succession or Killing Eve (or Anna Wintour, for that matter); instead, she modulates just the slightest amount of weary crispness into her voice, ultimately revealing that Edwina’s frustrations are primarily with herself. There are no bad guys here, because that would conflict too strongly with the vibe—even if it might have opened the door to some sharper jokes.
As a recreation of, and an advertisement for, 3 Salons At The Seaside, then, “Two Hairdressers In Bagglyport” is a wonderful piece of TV, an amazing effort at importing some of the original’s warmth for a much larger, more modern audience. As an original piece of standalone comedy, though, it’s a bit of a softer sell.
- I did first watches of both Three Salons and The September Issue ahead of viewing tonight’s episode. (The latter probably unnecessarily on reflection, although I certainly didn’t mind it.) I do wonder if I should adjust my process a bit, though, because “Bagglyport” would have hit differently if I’d waited to watch Salons until afterward.
- For half a second, when Alice opened the box with the style books at the end of the episode and gasped, I thought it might contain the kidnapped Mary’s head. (I know, I know; it’s grim in here for me, too.) I don’t know if that kind of sudden swerve to horror would have made for a better episode, but it certainly would have been a bit more distinct.
- Thank you in advance, by the way, for forgiving me for not indulging in the show’s running joke about this being Documentary Now!’s 53rd season on the air in the text of my reviews; it’s a very cute joke, and I love it, but it’s just easier to keep the review itself grounded in the real world.
- Another Armisen-light week: As postman George, he pops up a few times throughout the episode, most notably in a bit poking fun at the “girl skating” transitions.
- “And the bricks gave way—bricks he laid, it should be said..” Blanchett’s deadpan as Alice is very good; she’s such an amazing chameleon that it helps sell the sincerity of some very silly lines.
- Buono and Thomas take their recreations of the shots highlighting the casual, expert way the women’s hair is actually styled very seriously; not hard to imagine them responding to such lovely displays of craft.
- Edwina, receiving another postcard: “Majorca! That’ll be Mary, look at that beach…isn’t that lovely. Oh, she’s been kidnapped again.”
Alice: “Should I put out the ransom bucket again?”
- Of the various monologues that dot the episode—all of which are extremely faithful to Three Salons—I think my favorite has got to be the woman recounting her refusal to listen to doctors about whether or not her husband was dead.
- “And then there’s Geraldine, lost nine husbands between 1971 and 1984. Of course, that was before we knew she was The Plumpton Poisoner…”
- The ending is extremely sweet—as is the preceding monologue from Walter about choosing the photos.
- Poking around on Letterboxd, there’s definitely been an uptick in interest in Three Salons At The Seaside since it was announced as an inspiration for this episode several months back; there are worse impacts an episode of Documentary Now! can have.
- And that’s a wrap for this week! Back next time for “How They Threw Rocks,” the show’s take on 1996's When We Were Kings.