Drop Everything and Watch HBO’s Wild Subcultural Succession Doc Ren Faire

5 minute read

You might think you know what to expect from a documentary series called Ren Faire, but you are almost certainly wrong. From Spellbound and the crossword chronicle Wordplay to Trekkies and the live action role-playing doc Darkon, the Y2K era set the template for offbeat, warmhearted nonfiction films about nerdy subcultures. Ren Faire, HBO’s perceptive and surprisingly thrilling three-part portrait of the Texas Renaissance Festival as it approaches its 50th anniversary, is not that kind of story. It’s Succession, but with corsets and chainmail.

The series, which aired its first episode on Sunday and will run the remaining two back-to-back on June 9, finds its eccentric Logan Roy in TRF founder George Coulam. Known to his army of employees as King George, this frustrated artist idealizes Renaissance society for the way it venerated creative genius. (Not that TRF accurately depicts the era. A quintessential American ren fair, it exuberantly mashes up medieval Europe, Victorian England, the Scottish Highlands, the Wild West, and various other times and places, with anachronisms like steampunk welcome.) He also can’t stand feeling beholden to anyone, so he incorporated his own town, securing freedom from what he calls “the dictatorship of counties and states.” For decades, George has been the sovereign of all he surveys. But now he’s looking to pass the crown; at 86, he plans to “do art and chase ladies” for the nine more years of life he’s manifesting for himself.

Jeff Baldwin in Ren FaireHBO

His heir apparent is Jeff Baldwin, a 43-year TRF veteran who has worked his way up to the stressful position of general manager. While George parades around in a horse-drawn carriage, absorbing the adulation of underlings, it’s Jeff who has to handle everything from whiny employees to a local news report alleging unsafe drinking water at the festival. Styling himself as Cordelia in King Lear and the Charlie to George’s Willy Wonka—but coming off as a more likable Kendall Roy, a bit too thirsty for Daddy’s love—he assures his wife and co-worker Brandi: “You serve the king… and he will be benevolent.” A thespian who was previously the head of entertainment, Jeff is clearly happiest working with the hundreds of actors TRF employs to set its Renaissance-ish scene. His theatrical, reflective demeanor makes him an ideal protagonist. But is he assertive or dynamic enough, as a manager, to entrust with the business’ future?

Louie Migliaccio doesn’t think so. Nicknamed the Lord of the Corn because he owns TRF’s lucrative kettle corn empire, Jeff’s rival has only been involved with the festival for a decade or so, but he comes from a family of investors who might be persuaded to buy George out. Louie envisions a state-of-the-art operation involving “EDM festivals, a Renaissance University, new and immersive technology—things that will elevate our game.” Only in Ren Faire could a long-haired, leather-clad energy drink addict who likes to make up kettle-corn-themed parodies of pop songs play the role of the corporate interloper. A more traditional leader is Louie’s hyper-competent ally Darla Smith, who’s had great success as TRF’s vendor coordinator.

Louie Migliaccio in Ren FaireHBO

Best known for his feature doc Some Kind of Heaven, which profiled residents of the pseudo-utopian Florida retirement community The Villages, director Lance Oppenheim brings the same lightly surreal aesthetic to this project. (Among Ren Faire's executive producers are Uncut Gems duo Benny and Josh Safdie, who backed last year's remarkable HBO docuseries Telemarketers.) TRF may be George’s idiosyncratic take on the American Dream, but for those who’ve pinned their aspirations to his whims, it’s always threatening to devolve into a nightmare. Like Logan—and like the past decade’s preeminent mean, deluded, self-involved patriarch figure, Donald Trump—George thrives on forcing his employees to compete for approval he seems incredibly unlikely to ever give.

Beneath the colorful quirks of a man who is, for part of the series, obsessed with building “the world’s first American Rococo art bathroom” lies an octogenarian baby who seems incapable of trust, love, or happiness. The extent of George’s alienation, rooted in his childhood and confirmed by the ex-wife and former friends Oppenheim tracks down for interviews, is most palpable in a painfully cold pair of first dates that the series documents. At an Olive Garden, he meets one and then another beautiful 20-something from a sugar daddy site; the first is rejected because she doesn’t read enough, the second because she has breast implants. He might find a more simpatico companion if he’d expand his search to older women with less transactional objectives, but that’s not a compromise he’s willing to make. And so his unarticulated loneliness becomes the problem of everybody around him: loyal Jeff, capable Darla, ambitious Louie. For someone like George, whose personality type happens to be scarily common among today’s leaders, it isn’t necessarily good to be the king. But it’s even worse to be one of his subjects.

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