Documentary Now Season 3

A mysterious cult taking up roots in a small American town. A perceptive look at a daring and bold performance artist. A moment or two in the life of a prickly jazz musician in a foreign country. A warts-and-all behind-the-scenes look at the recording of a Broadway cast album. These topics have all made for insightful, attention-grabbing documentaries, but they’re all also the subjects of one of the most precise and sharp parodies on any television network.

In fact, they’re all the focus of at least one episode of the new season of IFC’s Documentary Now!, one of the best, most clever, and intelligent comedies airing now that’s tailor-made to anyone who loves movies.

Documentary Now! And Its Origins

If you’re a film buff — even if you don’t know every kind of documentary top to bottom — Documentary Now!, whose third season premieres on IFC tomorrow, is a gift that keeps on giving, one that you didn’t even know you wanted. The premise of each episode is the same: Dame Helen Mirren (yes, it’s really her) introduces the short film to come, and then what unfolds is a distinct parody of either a specific documentary or a specific kind of documentary. The show’s first season satirized everything from Errol Morris’ famous presentation of police corruption, The Thin Blue Line, to one of the very first documentaries, Nanook of the North.

The truest constant were the show’s two stars: Saturday Night Live alums Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. Hader and Armisen both excelled on SNL at being chameleonic performers, never tied to a specific type of character. That’s what made them so perfect for Documentary Now!, leaving aside their clear passion for the documentary form. (Both performers have written or co-written episodes.) Armisen and Hader are perfect as journalists from VICE who don’t realize how dangerous their investigations into Mexican drug cartels are, just as they’re perfect as a codependent mother and daughter in a destitute home in the middle of the woods, and so on.

The new season of Documentary Now! arrives nearly three years after the release of the show’s second season, and it’s all too easy to understand why. Leaving aside the show’s ratings (which are unsurprisingly not very big), the core group of performers and writers continue to see their respective stars rise. Since season two, Hader has gone on to win Emmys for his HBO comedy Barry; while Armisen just finished his run on the IFC comedy Portlandia, and recently co-starred with Maya Rudolph on the Amazon show Forever. The show’s writers also include the incomparably funny John Mulaney, whose stand-up career is at its peak and is now appearing on Broadway and in films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; and Seth Meyers, who…y’know, hosts a really funny nightly talk show on NBC. So it’s not surprising that the show took a couple years off, nor is it surprising (though it may disappoint a few fans) that a) Armisen only appears in three of the season’s seven new half-hours, and b) Hader doesn’t show up at all. But the new season’s surprise twist is this: it works just as well without them.

A New Comic Cast

In place of Hader and Armisen — who appeared in every episode in the first two seasons – Documentary Now! has branched out in its new season, not only in terms of the types of documentaries it skewers, but the actors who appear. Though a few of the earlier episodes featured recognizable guest actors, such as Jack Black as the editor-in-chief of VICE, Armisen and Hader were always the central focus. Sometimes, they were basically the only people on screen; In one episode, Hader does a riff on the late actor and monologist Spalding Gray, essentially delivering a half-hour monologue to camera.

But the new season’s hourlong opener, “Batsh*t Valley”, is a riff on the recent spate of documentaries about cults, specifically Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, features a number of well-known actors instead of the SNL comics. There’s Owen Wilson as Father Ra-Shawbard, the beatific and enigmatic leader of a cult that runs into resistance from the small-town denizens nearby, and Michael Keaton as Bill Doss, the FBI agent trying to bring things to a peaceful resolution. In some ways, by excluding the presence of Hader and Armisen, Documentary Now!’s third season has leapt forward qualitatively — the premise of the show is more than enough to survive different actors in front of the camera.

Even in the truly scathing episode “Original Cast Album: Co-Op”, itself a parody of D.A. Pennebaker’s behind-the-scenes documentary of the recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Company, the absence of the naturally musical Armisen isn’t felt at all. Instead, the cast is a murderer’s row of Broadway and comic talent, from Tony-winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry of Hamilton, Richard Kind, Taran Killam, and Mulaney himself. The episode does have a number of original songs, which manage to both skewer Sondheim’s style of songwriting while also feeling like legitimate homages to the iconic composer’s talent.

What will arguably be the season’s centerpiece episode is one in which Armisen appears, titled “Waiting for the Artist”, itself a parody of Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present. Documenting the past career and present exhibition of the European performance artist Izabella Barta, “Waiting for the Artist” has already gained some level of attention, because Barta is played by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett. In some way, just like the constant presence of Mirren at the opening of each episode, seeing Blanchett play things straight — as when we see evidence of Barta’s past performance art, including walking on a floor with broken glass to see what response it will provoke from an audience — is what makes the episode truly hilarious. (Armisen portrays a fellow artist, with whom Barta has a longstanding romantic relationship, and the resolution of that relationship makes for what is possibly the single funniest sight gag of the year on TV.) Blanchett’s performance, a careful and never over-the-top piece of work, is a microcosm of what makes Documentary Now! so special.

Bringing Fake Documentaries to Real Life

“Waiting for the Artist” is also an example of why Documentary Now! is so special. It might seem daunting for anyone whose awareness of documentaries is limited or nonexistent to watch this show. But what the episode gets right is both micro and macro: if you know these documentaries (the specific ones being mocked, or just the subgenre), you’ll be truly impressed at how directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono (the latter of whom directed all of the third-season episodes) have carefully and correctly evoked the style of a vast swath of documentary filmmakers. If, however, you don’t know your D.A. Pennebaker from the Maysles Brothers, you’ll still think the setups and gags themselves are exceptionally funny, if deadpan and dry.

Some of the elements of a given documentary are easy enough to emulate — a season-two two-part episode is a spoof of the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, and anyone who’s seen that film knows Evans’ distinctive, almost cartoonish way of narrating through his own life. That said, the ways in which Thomas and Buono bring these goofy ideas to life — such as a faux-sports documentary about the intensely competitive national bowling circuit — in such a way where the visual style feels in line with what’s being mocked is remarkable. They pay homage to directors as diverse as the Maysles, Morris, and even Jonathan Demme throughout the show’s three seasons, seemingly without breaking a sweat.

The level of skill evinced in each episode, and the lengths to which the cast and crew go to make each episode look right, is truly impressive. Some episodes, like the season-two episode “Globesman” (parodying the Maysles’ early-1960s film Salesman), are shot in black-and-white, and others involved the cast and crew traveling overseas to get the right look and flavor. (That’s in the first-season episode “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival”, documenting an Icelandic festival honoring the exploits of gangster Al Capone.)

Season three feels similarly like it’s pushing at the boundaries of what half-hour comedy can do, even if it’s for an audience that should hopefully be on either the cinephilic wavelength, or the wavelength that appreciates the deadpan humor of its creators. Documentary Now! might seem like a challenging prospect, even for fans of Bill Hader, John Mulaney, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers. The absence of Hader and Armisen from the majority of the third season may also seem like a sign of the show’s waning creative prospects. But instead, the opposite is true: this is one of the slyest, snappiest, and most brilliant comedies on television (and the first two seasons are streaming on Netflix), whether you’re a die-hard film lover or just a fan of smart comedy.

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