This week’s Documentary Now episode, “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” departs from the IFC series’ first two, as it doesn’t pay tongue-in-cheek tribute to classic documentary films like Grey Gardens and Nanook of the North. Instead, the show employs a completely different tact: “DRONEZ” is a straight-up spoof of the Vice media company and its approach to news reporting and journalism. For those not familiar with its documentary style, Vice appeals to its core millennial audience by simultaneously aiming for the sensational and serious—with silliness mixed in for good measure. This is, after all, the outlet that sent Dennis Rodman and a film crew to North Korea in 2013 for its HBO show, in what was probably the first documented meeting between Americans and the reclusive country’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Last week IFC wisely delayed airing “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” with its focus on the investigation of Mexican drug cartels, after two Virginia journalists were killed live on air. It proved to be the right move for the network, as the episode includes a couple of scenes in which reporters are shot at point-blank range, mirroring reality much too closely. A week later, it’s still shocking to watch journalists gunned down, even if for comic effect. If anything, those scenes help hammer home the point that many journalists around the world are in danger. They work to uncover unpopular truths and safeguard free speech rights. And they deserve protection—even the douchey ones of DRONEZ.
As in previous installments, the episode opens with an introduction of Documentary Now’s 50th season by Helen Mirren, who talks about DRONEZ, the consortium of participant journalists who put their lives on the line. With perfect elocution, she says the organization’s motto is “ballz to the wallz.” If that weren’t enough, she adds with a decidedly British seriousness and sensibility, “It should be noted that both ‘ballz’ and ‘wallz’ are both spelled with ‘zeds.’”
Not to be outdone, Jack Black—as DRONEZ founder Jamison Friend—introduces the fearless journalism of “The Hunt for El Chingon,” in which reporters track down the notorious drug lord based in Juarez, Mexico, for an interview. Black is a ringer for the hard-partying Vice CEO Shane Smith—hair, beard, black T-shirt and drink in hand—and the DRONEZ office seems like a carbon copy of its Brooklyn original.
The introductions by Mirren and Black are straightforward, which is a good thing, because when Fred Armisen and Bill Hader enter the episode—playing three sets of seemingly replaceable journalists—things get campy. In the first segment, the duo visits a man whose son was kidnapped by the cartel. They warn the audience as they enter, “The poverty you are about to see may be disturbing to your first world sensibilities,” and they proceed to point out examples of abject poverty, such as the first-generation Playstation in the otherwise well-appointed home. Just as the journalists finish the tour, they’re gunned down by El Chingon’s men at the front door. Even without the events of last week, the scene is jarring and not at all funny.
Jamison Friend returns to narrate how the deaths of their fellow journalists only emboldened them to proceed. Trevor and Bryce, the second team of journalists, have been pulled off stories on making omelets with racist sorority sisters and teaching Syrian rebels how to play Mario Kart, respectively. They’re briefly joined in the hunt by their fixer, hip-hop performer Ty Dolla $ign, at a club. They learn that the community has a Robin Hood relationship with El Chingon. He provides goods and services that the government doesn’t. In between interviews, Trevor and Bryce critique the traditional music, noting that the corridos (Mexican songs that tell a story) have a kind of “Deer Wolf vibe.” (There’s also a scene in which they don the most ridiculous pointy boots ever, tipping their caps to this Vice segment.) Unfortunately, Trevor and Bryce aren’t long for this world either, as they’re assassinated by the cartel outside of the club.
Undeterred in the hunt, Jamison brings reporters Lars and Denver back from Mongolia and the Amazon. These guys track down the reclusive leader using the same search methods that were used in the hunt for Bin Laden: ”We found the biggest house in the area and knocked on the front door,” says Lars. After a rough start with the cartel’s henchmen, the two eventually gain El Chingon’s trust, and he agrees to an interview—later. After doing a lot of coke, they find out hard-hitting information, like how his middle name is Ignacio, which gets shortened to Nacho, and that deep down, “This powerful kingpin is really just a fun dude who’s into cool stuff…like smoothies!” The interview never happens as the cartel’s raided by police as they’re about to start. But Jamison doesn’t mind, and praises Lars and Denver for their work. He then asks the audience to come back for DRONEZ’s next piece on the new way to get really wasted: vodka dicking.
There’s plenty of visual humor in “DRONEZ” as well—not including the reporters’ suspenders and skinny pants—that’s more comparable to a Saturday Night Live sketch or a Portlandia episode. Unlike the prior episodes, which treated their subjects with a bit of reverence, “DRONEZ” is highly irreverent, but just as entertaining. Vice being Vice, they relished the spoof and had a little fun with the notoriety, even hosting the episode on its own site before it aired (though they were asked to take it down in light of last week’s shootings). And if life imitates art, then we wouldn’t be surprised if Vice is working on that “vodka dicking” episode right now.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.