Documentary Now’s fourth episode, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” parodies and parallels Errol Morris’ 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line. The episode and the feature film focus on a man unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Despite Fred Armisen’s outstanding physical comedy in both facial expressions and mannerisms, the episode ultimately proves to be more sobering than side-splitting, indirectly indicting the American legal system for its fallibility (which ultimately is a good thing).
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie” investigates a Texas murder case in which jazz lover Don Lentile (Armisen) is imprisoned for the 1976 death of John Patrick Winslow, a sign spinner gunned down on the streets of San Antonio. (This is where the episode diverges from the original story as it was a Dallas police officer that was shot and killed.) Lentile is convicted thanks to shoddy police work and the testimony of another prisoner Robbie Wheadlan (Bill Hader), who just happened to be with Lentile on the night of the murder. Texas doesn’t like outsiders much, and Lentile’s brusque manner, funny speech and sometimes odd behavior doesn’t win any friends or favors with the police. The episode stresses that likeability and believability go a long way in the criminal justice system.
Despite the evidence pointing away from Lentile, the cops have it out for the weirdo jazz fan. They know local kid Robbie, so they use him as an informant and turn a blind eye to all his transgressions. When an eye witness comes forward to ID Robbie’s car—a “Jabroni” with the license plate I <3 PUSS driving away from the scene—the police ask him to re-think his description. One cop says, “The eyes don’t lie. If your memory’s confused, we can give it a little nudge.” So with the police’s help, the witness revises his statement. The car has become “beige Boca Raton” with the plate !Jazz!. We’ll give you one guess as to whom that car belongs.
Bill Hader, who wrote the episode with comedian and consulting producer John Mulaney, has a smaller role in this week’s episode as a hitchhiker who Lentile picks up the fateful night. A jazz guitar aficionado, Lentile doesn’t care for Robbie’s choice in music (a tape of Poison’s Swallow This Live). He tells Robbie to stop playing the music, and this request may have ultimately sealed his fate. “You do not mess with my music. Especially Poison,” Robbie says in one of several prison interviews.
There are out-there moments that add a great deal of levity to the episode, including Lentile’s penchant for pulling out a never-ending supply of trail mix during his police interrogation. (One detective comments that it wasn’t even the “fun” kind of trail mix, but the “real dry, raisiny trail mix.”) And during the trial, Lentile alienates himself by eating a box of chocolates daily and commenting out loud on the types of filling when people are testifying on the stand. Also, kudos go to Hader and Mulaney for referencing the comedy Mama’s Family multiple times in the script. The TV show is a key element to Lentile’s alibi. (We’ll let it slide, though, that the Vicki Lawrence comedy didn’t debut until 1983, and the murder of the sign spinner supposedly occurred in 1976, because, well, we haven’t thought of Mama’s Family in 30 years.)
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie” channels the Errol Morris film—and real life—in several ways. The prisoners, police and court officials who are interviewed talk directly to the camera; re-enactments are included (greatly influencing later TV shows and films); and the episode’s notable music by Dave Porter pays homage to the Philip Glass score of the original. There are key details from the true-life story that the Documentary Now team includes, albeit with a dose of silliness to make murder a little more palatable (though really that’s a difficult task).
A woman patrol officer is nearby, eating a creamsicle. She fires at the fleeing car, but hits nothing but the “inflatable car wash thingy.” In reality, the gunned down officer’s partner was a woman, one of the first in Dallas in the 1970s. One of the last scenes in the episode is of a tape recorder playing an interview with Robbie in which he all but confesses to the murder. The scene mimics The Thin Blue Line’s iconic last scene as Morris’ camera was malfunctioning during the final interview with his subject.
Even though the ridiculousness of Lentile’s conviction and trial are meant to entertain, it didn’t seem all that far-fetched. While Documentary Now did make us laugh, it more importantly made us think—about a classic Errol Morris film and the American legal system. The episode shows once again that Hader, Armisen and team have crafted one of the smartest and more creative shows on TV 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.