Documentary Now! Explores Campaigns, Charades, and Child Slaves

By  · Published on September 15th, 2016

Campaigns, Charades, and Child Slaves

Documentary Now! is back with a stellar spoof of “The War Room.”

Last night I watched a political satire where a candidate with an extensive record of service attempted to fight off attacks from an under-qualified buffoon whose campaign strategies undercut his ability to govern upon his election…

But enough about South Park, everyone.

Bill Hader and Fred Armisen topped the last season of Documentary Now! in the only way they knew how: they found a documentary to parody that is even more salient than those before. As much as I loved Dronez, the second episode of the show’s first season, its commentary was secondary to its hilarity. It lampooned the privilege and naiveté of VICE documentarians, and some at-large trends in journalism, but still felt like an incomplete critique. The Bunker, the show’s second season premiere and an adaptation of 1993’s The War Room, rises above some of the series’ earlier episodes to paint a resounding picture of current American politics. In perhaps the most divisive era of American governance, this mockumentary manages to capture the prescience (and lack thereof) of the documentary while also yielding keen insight into the casualties of modern electoral politics.

The original film depicted George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, head strategists for Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, as they led their candidate’s team to victory. The Bunker presents the exploits of Carville-inspired Teddy “Mississippi Machiavelli” Redbones (Hader) and Alvin “Boy Hunk of the Beltway” Panagoulious (Armisen) during a faux 1992 Ohio Gubernatorial election. Hader adopts a metered version of his Carville impression from SNL for Redbones to astounding success and Armisen flourishes as the vain, soft-spoken analog to the now co-anchor of Good Morning America.

As with previous entries in the series, though possibly to a greater extent, the episode’s aesthetic is remarkably in line with that of the original. Each frame, whether it be a newspaper headline or a public appearance, screams “the 90s” in a matter that should be jarring, but is instead immersive. This poster, courtesy of writer John Mulaney’s Twitter, is a testament to the producers’ attention to detail and whimsical nature. The show’s creators were so invested in making the set resemble the original program that a production designer found a soda machine used in The War Room and put it in the episode. The camera work and editing build upon the strengths of the set design and includes many transitions and shots that mirror those of the documentary. In doing so, the producers manage to make the events transpiring on the screen feel real, despite some of their more absurd aspects.

However, there is a crucial difference between The Bunker and The War Room: The apparent righteousness of each program’s central characters. Though the latter is not overwhelmingly favorable towards Clinton, it reflects its central characters’ unyielding allegiance to and respect for the presidential candidate. In the mockumentary, Clinton surrogate Ben Herndon is an unrelenting dolt and his opponent, incumbent governor Tom Lester, is a saint. One of the fake newspaper articles literally notes that he fulfilled all of his campaign promises and he begins the program up 80% in the polls. What results from this difference is an amusing take on the repercussions of unrestrained political ambition.

The central conflict in the episode regards Herndon’s reluctance to resort to negative campaigning, the only strategy that Redbones and Panagoulious believe could unseat such a popular opponent. In one of the best segments from the program, the campaign staff views with the following voice over:

“This Sunday is Governor Lester’s birthday. Let’s hope it’s his last.”

A message, styled after a red version of the Goosebumps logo and reading “Happy Birthday, Governor”, comes across the screen. After the inevitable, “On Election Day, vote for Ben Herndon”, the campaign staff only faults the ad’s length. When one staffer questions the message’s violent undertones, all Redbones can focus on is his desire for “spooky kids singing happy birthday”. Though modern audiences may now be accustomed to threats of this sort, the staffers’ ignorance here speaks to their blinding desire to see Herndon elected. Another fantastic scene has Redbones construing Lester’s use of unpaid interns as “child slave labor”. In contrast to his staff, Herndon is hesitant about bringing up anything like this at a televised debate.

Though I can’t reveal the end of the episode, the reveal that Redbones and Panagoulious pursued this election to prove they could get anyone elected is where the satire’s message comes into focus. When political strategists care only about their success, the voting public is the true loser. It may seem like a straightforward message, but in an era where both major political parties overlook their candidates glaring faults in pursuit of an electoral win, I appreciate the reminder. Once again, Hader and Armisen have delivered a hysterical and germane take on a classic documentary. I cannot wait to see what else they have in store.

If you’re interested in more, then check out this clip of the “child slaves” conversation from the episode:

Documentary Now! airs Wednesdays at 10pm on IFC.

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