One of the many things we admire about the IFC series Documentary Now is the show’s ability to surprise viewers each week with varied approaches to simultaneously honoring and spoofing well-known documentaries. Last week, Fred Armisen had a larger role in the Jiro Dreams of Sushi-inspired episode, with co-creator Bill Hader playing a supporting character as a Colombian journalist. The series traveled on location to capture the countryside and scenic vistas that complemented the food porn aspects of the episode. In this latest installment, Armisen is absent as Hader gamely channels playwright-performance artist Spalding Gray (almost) alone onstage.
“Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” is Documentary Now’s take on Gray’s one-man show Swimming to Cambodia (1987). Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film captured Gray weaving personal memories with commentary on the political unrest in Southeast Asia. As Dame Helen Mirren explains in her introduction to the faux-documentary version (which could also apply to Demme’s film): “Memoir theater and documentary merged to produce a classic.” We’re thankful that Mirren has stuck around for Season Two to do these episode intros. She’s so straightlaced and unironic in her delivery, it adds gravitas and helps balance the show’s silly and sublime moments.
Written by Hader and comedian John Mulaney, the episode continues Documentary Now’s dedication to replicating the smallest of details from the source material. While the episode’s opening credits roll, the production company’s title card, Varick Street Productions— with its white font on black background—mirrors Swimming to Cambodia’s Cinecon International Films. Similarly, the recreation of Gray’s simple table on a stage rings true; the camera follows a microphone and a glass of water as they’re carefully placed on the table. Parker Gail (Hader) enters and puts his cartoon-covered notebook at the center of the table, and then moves the glass of water to the opposite side so the tableau is closer to Gray’s version. (Yes, we compared the scenes in slo-mo. Details and Easter eggs like these appeal to cinephiles and not just TV fans.)
In one of the episode’s funniest moments, Hader deadpans the camera directly, snapping his head in different directions—left-right-left-up-down—all while directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas use their cameras to over-exaggerate Gray’s minimal, but theatrical movements in the film. Conversely, we were disappointed in the music for the episode. Laurie Anderson composed and performed Swimming to Cambodia’s score, which is dramatic and attention-grabbing. The episode’s score tries to emulate Anderson, but the music and sound design are too restrained to make any meaningful impact.
Although “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” remains faithful to Demme’s version, the writers and directors change enough for the episode to stand alone as a solid piece of comedy. Hader captures the monologist’s tics and thick Blue Blooded Rhode Island accent perfectly as he shares the “tragic” tale about losing his apartment and having to find another because of a Stereo City being built on the property. Gail rants, raves and free associates about his life and his relationships all while behind the desk. However, instead of staying a true one-man show, Documentary Now introduces other characters, who pop-up and sit at their own spare desks onstage. The cameras and the spotlights turn to them as they offer their contradictory versions of Gail’s stories. We appreciate the drastic change here from the film; while Hader is highly entertaining, the monotony of Gail’s monologue is pleasantly broken up by these guests.
Gail’s girlfriend, Ramona (Lennon Parham), not only explains what really happened in their relationship, but also reveals that his “tumultuous” childhood might have been anything but. “He was 30 was his parents got divorced,” she says, exasperated. A subway turnstile worker (June Carryl) calls BS on Gail’s version of their encounter when Gail didn’t have enough money to ride the subway. The subway attendant conveys disgust and annoyance at Gail’s first world problem—having to move from one loft to another loft. “God give me the strength to deal with these people because I cannot!” she says. Other guests take turns on stage tearing down aspects of Gail’s performance piece, but it doesn’t phase him. Hader is perfect playing a performer without an iota of self-awareness, but with an overabundance of ego. He delivers the best lines (“I free associated so hard that I shit my pants”) without a smirk on his face, humorously reinforcing the fact that he lives in his own reality.
Viewers don’t find out until the end of the episode that there’s a big reason why Documentary Now diverges from the film in its opening scene. The directors discard Gray’s “dramatic” entrance walking down the New York street, into the theater and through the audience. We don’t see the audience until the very end—but once we see them, we realize that it’s all been part of the punchline that the episode’s been working toward all along. Documentary Now proves with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” that it’s not afraid to take chances and play the long game for a joke, even with documentaries that focus on serious subject matter. Week-after-week, the show manages to mine its source material for the comedy nuggets all while still honoring the spirit of the original.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.