Lance Armstrong plays a key role in the HBO mockumentary Tour de Pharmacy, winking and nudging at the multiple decades that he cheated, contributed to the undermining of the entirety of a sport and lied about it to anybody who would listen. It is only with the respect due to Armstrong for the millions in cancer research money he generated that I politely tell both him and Tour de Pharmacy that it’s still time for atonement and remorse and not yet time for mirth.
Fortunately, when it isn’t asking you to chuckle along with Armstrong’s coy self-awareness, Tour de Pharmacy is smart, silly and often hilarious, and a worthy follow-up to creators Andy Samberg and Murray Miller’s 2015 tennis lark 7 Days in Hell.
If we’re in the golden age of TV documentaries — a made-for-TV documentary even won the Oscar this year, as you may have heard — it’s fitting that we’re in the golden age for TV mockumentaries as well. The brand Samberg and Miller are building at HBO is probably the other side of the coin from what Samberg’s former Saturday Night Live colleagues developed in IFC’s often brilliant Documentary Now!
With Documentary Now!, the source documentary is the thing. Punchlines almost never violate the structure and style of the film being honored, as Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and their directors introduce gags only to the degree they’re permitted by the precedent set by the Maysles brothers or Errol Morris or whomever. I love Documentary Now!, and I also know that its popularity will always be intentionally limited by what is essentially an intellectual experiment performed by a group of documentary nerds for an audience of documentary nerds.
With the Samberg and Miller mockumentaries, both helmed by Jake Szymanski, the joke is the thing. Szymanski knows the form and aesthetic of the HBO Sports documentaries they’re aping, but nothing in the brand is too sacred that it can’t be sacrificed for a penis joke, an extended animated sequence, a penis joke, an intentionally distracting star cameo, a penis joke, a tangentially related Finish commercial or even a penis joke.
After 7 Days in Hell, which looked at the legendary [fictional] finale of Wimbledon 1996, Tour de Pharmacy travels back even further in time and looks at the [fictional] 1982 Tour de France, in which “virtually every rider in the race was doping.”
There are many reasons for and results from that added historical distance. In terms of jokes, it lets Szymanski and Miller dig into a deep pool of Generation X cultural references, from video games to Schoolhouse Rock, taking the chuckles well beyond (if not necessarily deeper than) the hair-and-costuming nostalgia of 7 Days in Hell. In terms of disingenuousness, it puts us a decade before Armstrong’s arrival on the cycling scene, his years as a cheater and 30 years before his lifetime ban, which I guess makes it OK for a mockumentary to giggle with a man who lied to countless journalists and filmmakers. Seriously, Lance Armstrong. Have the decency to go away.
It’s in terms of casting that the 35 years pay the biggest dividends. Tour de Pharmacy focuses on just a handful of the 1982 cyclists, including African blood-diamond heir Marty Hass (Samberg), Jackie Robinson’s boundary-breaking nephew Slim Robinson (Daveed Diggs), aggressively juiced Gustav Ditters (John Cena), secret-hiding Adrian Baton (Freddie Highmore) and JuJu Peppi (Orlando Bloom), whose heart explodes in the special’s opening scene (and opening penis joke). Each of the characters is played by a different actor decades later, and the genius of the matched casting is so wonderful only the cruelest of TV critics would spoil it for you. The casting is so exceptional that each older actor’s first appearance was enough to make me laugh, context aside.
As with 7 Days in Hell, Tour de Pharmacy capitalizes on its brevity and its one-off status to get an impressive assortment of stars to make loopy drop-in appearances. Will Forte as a gendarme with a limited French vocabulary? Sure. Kevin Bacon as a sleazy racing official? Of course. Chris Webber, Mike Tyson (as problematic as Armstrong) and J.J. Abrams as themselves, in sometimes bizarre contexts? Why not? James Marsden, always a good sport, has a larger role as a reporter who takes on a bigger role as the Tour progresses.
As was also the case with 7 Days in Hell, Tour de Pharmacy doesn’t lack for jokes that fall a little flat, but unlike Documentary Now! — where the possibility exists that you could go through a full episode and simply not get the reference or extended, elaborate bit — the formula here is just to race from one thing to the next. A minor dud or two is sure to be followed by a big hit, and with a running time of 39 minutes, there’s zero risk that Tour de Pharmacy will overstay its welcome.
These are just odd and effective things Samberg and Miller apparently just get to do when they have the inspiration, and I hope that HBO doesn’t attempt to make this into a more regularly scheduled thing. Don’t kill the golden goose that lays the penis joke eggs! But also please leave the door open for a Samberg/Miller boxing mockumentary, perhaps loosely inspired by On Freddie Roach, in 2019. It practically writes itself, guys!
Premieres: Saturday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)