One of the smartest and funniest shows on TV, “Documentary Now!” is back tonight for a seven-episode third season on IFC. It’s been way too long since the second season of this show ended in 2016. Two-and-a-half years is a lifetime in the crowded world of TV, so you may have forgotten how hysterically funny this spoof of film documentaries from Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers can be. It won’t be long before you remember.
If you’re unfamiliar, the concept of “Documentary Now!” is simple in that each episode copies the tone, style, and structure of a previously existing documentary. Not only are the parodies incredibly smart—the kind of thing that can only be made by people who actually love non-fiction filmmaking—but they also reveal the true breadth of form within the documentary label. Highlights of the first two seasons include series premiere “Sandy Passage” (a note-perfect spoof of “Grey Gardens”), “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” (based on “The Thin Blue Line”), “The Bunker” (from the political doc “The War Room”) and “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” (from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”). The seven-episode third season takes aim at “Wild Wild Country,” “Original Cast Album: Company,” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” and more.
The season opens with a two-part episode that riffs heavily on a docu-series that hadn’t even aired the last time that “Documentary Now!” was on TV, Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country,” while also borrowing from 2012’s “The Source Family.” Called “Batsh*t Valley,” the episode stars Owen Wilson as Father Ra-Shawbard, a cult leader with a secret, and co-stars Michael Keaton. Written by Meyers, it’s notable for something this show does so well: a remarkable level of detail. It’s rarely a series in which you can see the participants winking at the camera. Everyone takes their fictional non-fiction parts so seriously. Even the way Helen Mirren introduces each episode as if it’s a real, important chapter in documentary history mirrors something you’d see on History Channel or PBS. And Meyers and company rarely go for the easy joke. Sure, there are orgy and drug jokes in “Batsh*t Valley,” but they never over-do any of their gags, often moving on to something else clever just as you’re getting the previous joke.
The highlight of the season, and perhaps the series for anyone who was a theatre major like myself, is “Original Cast Recording: Co-op,” a masterful half-hour co-written by and co-starring John Mulaney. The spoof of D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark documentary that captured the recording of the album for “Company” in 1970 not only hits SO many of the beats of its source material, including an Elaine Stritch solo number that brings the house down, but it’s hysterical if you’ve never even heard of the Sondheim original. The premise is brilliantly simple: a Broadway cast has to record an album even though their show has just been cancelled after being panned by critics. Mulaney, James Urbaniak, Taran Killam, Richard Kind, and Renee Elise Goldsberry co-star in an amazing, musical TV masterpiece.
Other highlights of the season include a Cate Blanchett-led riff on performance art called “Waiting for the Artist” and a clever dissection of how ego-centric fan culture can be in “Searching For Mr. Larson: A Love Letter From the Far Side.” Perhaps because the season starts so strongly, the final two episodes felt like a bit of a letdown to me, but they’re still smarter than most comedy television. Documentaries are having a moment right now with relatively major box office hits like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “RBG,” along with the success of docu-series on services like Netflix. Let’s just hope some of it serves as further inspiration for the team behind “Documentary Now!”
Entire third season screened for review.