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HBO’s Entertaining Texas Renaissance Fair Doc

HBO’s Entertaining Texas Renaissance Fair Doc

Documentarian Lance Oppenheim is like a maximalist Errol Morris.

He makes films that focus on eccentrics and oddballs and the communities they call home, documentaries that invite viewers to gawk at their subjects but do not, themselves, gawk.

Ren Faire

The Bottom Line

Unscripted ‘Game of Thrones’ revels in its excess.

Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, June 2 (HBO)
Director: Lance Oppenheim

In a documentary landscape that too frequently hues to the intentionally bland aesthetic conventions of “realism” — gritty, washed-out photography and hand-held framing masquerading as “objective” — Oppenheim’s films can be assaultive. They’re full of oversaturated colors, hallucinatory shifts in perspective, hyper-intimate close-ups and reenactments that blur lines between reality and subjective fiction.

I was legitimately shocked to look up the running times on Oppenheim’s 2020 Some Kind of Heaven and 2024’s Spermworld and see that both documentaries were under 85 minutes. It’s not exactly a criticism to say that I thought they were both longer. Lance Oppenheim documentaries feel like a lot.

At a solid three hours stretched over three episodes, Oppenheim’s HBO series Ren Faire definitely feels like a lot of a lot. It’s a study in excess that I don’t necessarily recommend watching as a three-hour binge, but one that I absolutely recommend watching. Ren Faire has real breakout potential, with its juicy, borderline unbelievable story, its cast of larger-than-life character featured in those larger-than-life close-ups and its absolute cacophony of quirkiness.

There’s so much happening in Ren Faire and Oppenheim holds the viewer’s hand so consistently that most people won’t get distracted by all the gaps in the storytelling and all the places beneath the surface that the director doesn’t want to dig.

The series is set around the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest of its kind in the United States. The Faire was founded 50 years ago by George Coulam. Between the festival grounds and the surrounding camping grounds, it covers hundreds of acres, and while it’s an incorporated city, it’s closer to a fiefdom ruled over by the man they call “King George.”

George has determined that he’s going to die when he’s 95, which means he only has nine years left — nine years in which he wants to dedicate himself to gardening, art and finding a companion. He’s engaging in the latter pursuit through a series of sugar daddy websites, which allow him to target “nice thin [ladies] between 30 and 50 years old”; if that sounds a little gross, be warned that the women we see him with in the documentary are all under 30 and his primary prerequisite is that they have natural breasts.

So George is planning for a life beyond the Texas Renaissance Festival, but he hasn’t named a successor.

There are candidates!

Jeffrey Baldwin is the festival’s current general manager, a job that has the longevity of Spinal Tap drummers because George is… let’s just say… “fickle.” Jeff, a former actor who earnestly sings along to tracks from Shrek the Musical, understands the spirit of the festival, but maybe he doesn’t have the business chops to keep it running? He also doesn’t understand why “nepotism” is bad — he wants to hire his wife for a key position — but maybe that’s because the voice of morality belongs to King George.

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Louie Migliaccio is a kettle corn magnate who has built a mini-empire within the festival, employing 140 people. Louie has rich relatives and he’s trying to round up money to purchase the festival and he’s full of big ideas to move it into the future. With a tightly cropped beard, long flowing locks and a love for leather vests, he looks like a steampunk villain.

Finally, to a much lesser degree, there’s “vendor coordinator” Darla Smith, who doesn’t really have the grand aspirations to match Jeffrey or Louie; she’s content to loom behind whoever’s in charge, glowering. If Darla didn’t have a background as an elephant trainer, would Oppenheimer be as interested in her? Probably not! But she does, and that makes her peculiar as well.

So you could probably say that Ren Faire is Succession meets Tiger King, minus the simmering contempt that the Netflix series’ creators exhibited for their featured characters at every moment, with every editing choice and every musical cue. The thing I appreciate most about Oppenheim is that he rarely passes judgment on any of his characters, however badly in need of judgment they might be. This is one of the things that makes his documentaries unsettling. Like, Ari Nagel, the most prolific sperm donor in Spermworld, came across as a man in dire need of outside judgment, but Oppenheim left that for me to do.

The characters in Ren Faire could all use a good reality check and Oppenheim makes it easy to laugh at Jeffrey for his naiveté or at Louie for his entitled preening or at George for absolutely everything. But rather than doing it himself, he captures his subjects in a way that illustrates how high the stakes are for these people in their chosen milieu. He honors the way the situation feels to them more than the way it looks from the outside.

It’s possible, actually, that a Succession/Tiger King comparison is too grounded for Oppenheim’s mythology. He likes to make ordinary lives feel Shakespearean, with King Lear as a comparison so obvious that Jeffrey makes it multiple times — albeit with a strong suggestion that he never made it to the end of the play, because he hopes to be George’s Cordelia, which he looks at as a best-case scenario. The King Lear references abound in Ren Faire, as do nods to obvious touchstones like Game of Thrones and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While Oppenheim resists putting his finger on a moral scale, he never wants viewers to be in the dark about what he’s doing — there’s even a freaking dragon to head off “It’s Game of Thrones without the dragons” comparisons. In the process, though, he takes away a lot of the fun that some viewers might otherwise have in making connections themselves.

The core story here is so good, the main characters so vivid, the approach so entertainingly intense, that it’s easy to get caught up in the courtly intrigue of Ren Faire. There’s little doubt that Oppenheim’s entire team is on the same page. Nate Hurtsellers’ cinematography alternates between acid-drenched evocations of this largely rhetorical conflict and access so close to the action that you become very acquainted with the burst blood vessels in Jeffrey’s eyes during one crucial moment. Ari Balouzian’s score is a sonic hodge-podge that aurally mirrors the back-and-forth shifts of power. Oppenheimer’s style has the effect of turning real people into actors, but if you make your bones pretending you’re living in medieval times even when you’re talking on your cell phone, a little play-acting for a documentary film crew is probably kosher.

There’s no real exploration of the Texas of it all, why this venue found such a home in the Lone Star State in the first place. What does it mean that there’s this oasis of very white nostalgia within a diversifying Texas? In a state of red/blue polarization, is there any way to confirm my theory that the Texas Renaissance Festival is probably an unlikely blending of ideological extremes? There’s something truly illuminating in viewing Ren Faire next to HBO’s three-part God Save Texas, but that’s not on Oppenheim’s agenda (and HBO largely let God Save Texas premiere and disappear without a trace).

Maybe we can have those conversations after people get caught up in Ren Faire, because it’s my guess that there’s an audience that will get hooked on this series and stick with it, unless they get too exhausted by the style of it first.

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