Documentary Now! dips back into the Maysles brothers’ (Albert and David) well for its latest episode, “Globesman.” After tackling the brothers’ best-known documentary Grey Gardens last season, the IFC series parodies their 1968 film, Salesman. Instead of selling high-end Bibles as in the original, the door-to-door salesmen of Documentary Now! hawk globes (hence the title). Shot in black-and-white, the episode mimics the film in so many ways, faithfully recreating and subtly mocking some of its most famous scenes and characters; but remarkably, it also preserves the melancholy and pathos of the Maysles’ film. It’s an unconventional combination of genres that proves how daring this show can be.
For those not familiar with Salesman, the film follows four Boston Bible peddlers who try to sell expensive Bibles ($49.95 a pop) to middle- and lower-income Catholics, many of whom clearly cannot afford the extravagance. The pitches move between soft and hard sells, with monetary futures of both sides on the line. The Maysles brothers’ cinéma vérité captures a time in America where door-to-door sellers were still accepted as the norm: People answered their doors and let strangers into their homes. It would take a few more decades for Robocall technology to develop (followed in short order by caller ID and Nest products) allowing the average consumer to ignore the phone and front door, respectively.
A precursor to reality TV, Salesman focuses on Paul Brennan (“The Badger”) as he struggles with closing sales against some of the other more aggressive and successful Bible sellers; he’s Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman personified. In “Globesman”, “The Badger” becomes Tom “The Possum” O’Halloran, with Fred Armisen playing his character surprisingly close to the original, successfully conveying the despair and the frustration of a cold streak. He’s joined on the road by three others from Amalgamated Globe, including Pete “The Scrod” Reynolds (Bill Hader); Bob “The Lummox” Campbell (Tony Forsmark); and Mike Stankowitz, aka Mike Stankowitz (Bill Smitrovich). The men have a competitive, yet mostly cordial relationship with each other. They spend hours on the road, in hotel rooms drinking beer and chain smoking in place after place where it’s now illegal or frowned upon (conference rooms, clients homes).
The frat boy relationship among the quartet, as well as the use of “motivational” conference speakers, hard sells and nefarious tactics to eliminate the competition from an atlas salesman, is reminiscent of another great American work of literature, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (with a lot less swearing). Armisen’s character mines the depths of desperation similar to Jack Lemmon’s Shelley “The Machine” Levene. In one hotel room scene, a passed out Possum is peed on by one of his colleagues for fun. Instead of a jokey punchline, viewers got a punch in the gut when Possum runs to the bathroom to clean up because it’s his only suit.
This all sounds like heady stuff for an IFC comedy, and it is. Written by co-creator Seth Meyers, the episode is melancholic and emotional—like his Juan Likes Rice and Chicken episode—but it’s not devoid of laughs. The humor is found in understated jokes and sharp dialogue, sometimes crossing the line into total political incorrectness. We see why The Possum can’t close deals. He argues with a kid who points out that Bermuda is spelled “Bermuba” on the globe, and tries to convince the boy and his mother that Bermuba is just another name for the island. And when he’s surprised that an older couple doesn’t try to haggle with him for the $49.95 price, he’s giddy when he tells them that most other customers try to “Jew you down” (yes, he said that!). Of course, the couple’s last name is “Rothstein.” When he rides along with the more successful Scrod on a sales call, he almost ruins the deal by telling the family that he can’t believe their daughter’s age. (“[She] has the breasts of a much older woman.”)
At the outset of the episode, Hader’s Scrod is an aggressive salesman who tries to convince people to buy a globe even if they can’t afford it. One mother tells him that her husband is in the hospital, and they don’t know how they’ll pay the bills. To top it off, she says, they just found out that their son Tommy is deaf and will need extra care. In an uproarious and unexpected moment, Scod yells, “Tommy!” several times trying to prove to the mother that the kid’s not deaf, and they should just buy the globe. Later, Hader’s character transforms into the story’s hero as Possum dives deeper into depression. Scrod helps—forces—Possum out of his slump with a little sales magic. The episode ends with an act of compassion, and ultimately, hope, which is a departure from the Maysles’ film.
“Globesman” is a complex and well-done episode of TV, operating on several levels. An odd mixture of nostalgic parody with existential overtones, its themes straddle the line between comedy of the absurd and just plain comedy—appealing to both philosophy majors and the Willy Lomans of the world.
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.