In basketball parlance, the term “tweener” has been used to describe a player who didn’t quite fit into one of the five established on-court positions, somebody too small to thrive close to the basket, but maybe not quite fast or dexterous enough to handle the ball and spread the offense. Formerly a pejorative, in today’s NBA, where a higher premium is put on versatility, a tweener has value.
Today’s streaming TV landscape has given value to nonfiction tweeners. Productions that a decade ago would have been told either “Trim down to 100 minutes” or “Get more footage to become eight or 10 episodes” can now find homes at three or four or five episodes — regardless of whether “contract or expand” would still have been good advice.
TV’s latest enticing documentary tweener is Hulu’s Sasquatch, which hails from director Joshua Rofé, whose 2019 Amazon four-parter on Lorena Bobbitt definitely could have been beneficially cut to feature-length. Sasquatch goes the other way. A three-episode “series,” with two episodes running under 45 minutes, Sasquatch is three or four different stories told halfway and then a rushed, over-explained attempt to unify them. The stories are all interesting and several have the potential for real gravity, leaving me wanting more in the end — which I guess is better than wanting less?
At the center of Sasquatch is David Holthouse, an investigative journalist with vague recollections of spending a fall evening in 1993 at a cabin adjacent to a marijuana farm in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle (Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino Counties). Holthouse, who has built a career on dangerous embedded reporting, remembers a group of men barging into the cabin and announcing that they’d just found the bodies of three farm workers torn to shreds and that the killer was a Bigfoot. Nearly 30 years later, Holthouse and Rofé set out to learn the truth about what did or didn’t happen on that dark and stormy night in one of the most impenetrable places in the country.
So on one hand, the title of Sasquatch is literal. The filmmakers interview locals and experts to find out justifications for believing a giant primate resides deep in our nation’s forests. Sources here include Bob Gimlin, of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film that either gives the best view ever recorded of Bigfoot or was a rudimentary hoax. Rofé doesn’t want his documentary to be confused with Finding Bigfoot or Expedition Bigfoot, so at no point does Holthouse head into the forest himself, even as a stunt.
If that doesn’t quite work for you, Sasquatch is a portrait of a unique three-county region; how it evolved from a hippie haven into a lucrative hub for marijuana cultivation and distribution; and how, in the 1980s, government initiatives like Operation Green Sweep and CAMP (“Campaign Against Marijuana Planting”) declared war on small (illegal) business owners and, rather than eradicating the drug trade, contributed to rising prices and violence that continued even after weed ceased to be a law enforcement priority.
So there’s history, fantasy and mystery. Holthouse is only partially certain of what he heard that night in 1993 and there’s no criminal record confirming any triple homicide. That doesn’t mean, mind you, that nothing occurred, since as several people are willing to acknowledge on camera, the Emerald Triangle is home to any number of unsolved murders, unidentified murder victims and an industry sustained by undocumented workers whose presence was never recorded and whose absence wouldn’t be acknowledged.
As to whether the hypothetical perpetrator was Bigfoot or run-of-the-mill rural kingpins? Well, it’s harder to get anybody to go on camera talking about those questions; Sasquatch uses an interesting blend of pixelated faces, technologically doctored voices and straight up reconstructions, with the differentiations sometimes left unclear.
These pieces are somewhat held together by a partial autobiography of Holthouse, whose reportorial drive comes from a desire to expose monsters, dating back to his own childhood history with sexual abuse. So you can see how a case that either does or doesn’t involve a Bigfoot tearing three people to shreds would appeal to him on a literal or metaphorical level — and if you can’t see that, the third episode spends much of its running time explaining the reasons people turn to the supernatural to account for things we can’t or don’t want to understand.
You can similarly see why all of these elements would attract executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass, who filled a similar capacity on HBO’s The Lady and the Dale, another series that mixed quirkiness with a grounded, fundamentally sad character piece and was probably the best constructed of the recent tweener docuseries (it also achieved an even greater documentary rarity with partially animated reenactments that actually enhanced the story). The same cannot be said for the animation in Sasquatch, which whimsically captures the unreliability of Holthouse’s memories in the first episode and then is repurposed a few times, but lacks the aesthetic consistency to be worthwhile.
I’m not sure why Rofé didn’t use additional animation to smooth over some of the reenacted or identity-obscured interviews that Holthouse conducts with various midlevel criminals and criminal-adjacent figures. I can’t tell if it’s frustration or disinterest that causes Sasquatch to run out of steam on the central mystery by midway through the third episode, at which point people just start discussing what the documentary was about instead of doing the legwork for the documentary to really be about those things.
I never felt like Sasquatch was doing a disservice to Holthouse, since he’s just grappling with his own demons and trying to see if there’s any story here at all. Nor do I feel like Sasquatch does a disservice to the strange “Squatchers,” who mostly get to share their obsession in the first hour and then vanish.
I’m less sure that the back-to-the-landers who came to the Emerald Triangle in the ’70s for utopian reasons or the members of the anti-drug squads get their stories told sufficiently to be worthwhile. I’m certain that Diana, who moved to California from Mexico when she was 4 and is still looking for answers regarding the murder of her beloved uncle, deserved more and better. Following in Sasquatch’s big footprints is supposed to let Rofé understand these personal, human stories, but this documentary only begins to follow through the doors knocked open by the fantastical woodland beast.
Premieres Tuesday, April 20, on Hulu.