Documentary Now! is television for people who love movies—more specifically, documentary films. This may be a growing niche. Documentary has undergone something of a renaissance in the last ten years, as streaming platforms have focused on bingeable nonfiction films and series that spark detailed, intense debate: Did Robert Durst really murder his wife? Did the stress of captivity really make a killer whale attack its trainer? Was Ma Anand Sheela—the charismatic spokeswoman for the Rajneesh cult in Oregon—truly a sinister leader or just a woman in way over her head? Documentaries have the power to rocket a story directly into the news, serving viewers a portion of life to dissect, examine, start Reddit threads about, and watch on repeat.
A quirky comedy series now entering its third season on IFC, Documentary Now! picks apart these films in a different way. Instead of breaking down the information they present, it scrutinizes their style, offering up laser-accurate parodies of famous works. Each episode re-creates a movie, down to its camera angles and costumery, and can highlight not only the brilliance of lauded documentaries but also their shortcomings. This nerdy, often delightful concept is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and director Rhys Thomas, along with the intrepid cinematographer and director Alex Buono, who has the uncanny ability to mimic the visual style of films from any era.
Helen Mirren, a real sport, introduces every parody as part of a PBS-like showcase for the “world’s most thought-provoking cinema.” The conceit is that these invented documentaries are as magnificent as the films they are aping: The Thin Blue Line, Grey Gardens, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The War Room. But as the episodes grow increasingly absurd, the documentary form starts to look quite loopy too. Suddenly, you are wondering why the Maysles brothers decided to spend weeks following around two women who live in squalor. And was that an exploitative act, or the stuff of epic cinema? What Documentary Now! is doing, in a subtle way, is probing the idea of greatness. Why do certain films, and filmmakers, get to become part of the canon?
The best of these episodes can forever change the way you watch the source material. Sometimes, you want to run back to the original with a newfound swelling of appreciation. “Final Transmission,” for instance, pays homage to Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, fondly quoting bassist Tina Weymouth’s blond, shaggy hairstyle and David Byrne’s oversize business suit. Other episodes reveal holes in work you previously admired. “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” puts a dark twist on Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme’s 1987 film about the performance artist Spalding Gray and his elaborate monologues; Hader plays him as a misogynist fabulist, who can’t stop warping the truth, inventing anecdotes about a pushy girlfriend and about encountering a wise woman in the subway, who tells him “you’ll get where you need to go.”
The main creative team behind Documentary Now! is all men, which means that they mostly choose documentaries with male subjects to spoof: The Kid Stays in the Picture, Salesman, History of the Eagles. The scarcity of episodes with a woman at the center is disappointing—I long for them to parody 20 Feet From Stardom—but it does result in quite a few instances of both Hader and Armisen openly dissecting and critiquing patriarchal systems from the inside. Making a documentary can be an act of intrusion and manipulation as much as it can be an act of responsibility and care, and Documentary Now! investigates just how thin that line can be.
In the show’s third season, its tone has shifted. For one thing, Bill Hader, who clearly loved the movies he lampooned, does not appear in these episodes; he is off making the second season of Barry, his HBO comedy series about a hitman who aspires to be an actor. Without him, the season has a harder edge: It doesn’t just gently rib its subjects, it eviscerates them.
In “Long Gone,” the season’s sixth episode, Fred Armisen plays an aging jazz musician named Rex Logan in a smoky, black-and-white re-creation of Bruce Weber’s 1988 film about Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost. The original film was a near-sycophantic love letter to a jazz legend, presenting Baker as a cool cat who traveled with the wind, floating through hazy noir shots of cosmopolitan streets at night. “Long Gone” is far more sinister: Armisen plays a self-centered and dissociative musician, who at one point decides to abandon his wife (Natasha Lyonne) and child to live in a tiny European country and gets mixed up with a fascist dictatorship. The episode attempts to grapple with the men behind the original movie. Chet Baker was a libertine and an addict, and Weber has experienced a reputational reckoning of his own, after recent accusations of sexual misconduct. (Weber is challenging the accusations.) But the episode is weighed down with mea culpas and dramatic lighting, and never makes a really coherent political statement.
One finds the same sloggy heaviness in “Batsh*t Valley,” a two-episode arc that parodies last year’s breakout Netflix series Wild Wild Country (with a dash of The Source Family, the 2012 documentary about a New Age cult in 1970s Los Angeles). Owen Wilson does a guest-turn as the charismatic leader of a religious group that takes over a small town in Oregon in the 1980s, just as the Indian mystic Rajneesh and his followers did. The episode drags because it doesn’t bring a fresh gag to the proceedings; it simply replicates the story of Wild Wild Country, with a few added jokes about the FBI and vegan cuisine. When Documentary Now! shines, it does so because its fake films raise new questions about the real documentaries. I ended my viewing of “Batsh*t Valley” with nothing new to believe.
The third season, however, brings two standout episodes, both dominated by women. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Paula Pell star in “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” a parody of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about the cast recording session for Sondheim’s Company. The comedian John Mulaney co-wrote the episode, along with several brand-new show tunes, which so closely resemble Sondheim’s rapid-patter style that I had to pause my viewing several times because I was laughing so hard. Goldsberry is brilliant as an ingenue who belts out a number about 1970s interior decoration, celebrating the colors beige and brown, and Pell does a spot-on tribute to Elaine Stritch. It is clear that everyone involved with the episode is having fun making it. How could they not? They are performing an entirely fictitious Broadway musical in period costumes straight out of Taxi Driver.
But the episode from this season that I will re-watch, and that deepened my engagement with the documentary form, is “Waiting for the Artist,” in which Cate Blanchett guest-stars as the performance artist Izabella Barta. Blanchett perfectly captures an essence of Marina Abramovic, who allowed a crew to follow her as she staged her MoMA retrospective for the 2012 film The Artist Is Present. The self-aggrandizing mission statements, the anxiety meltdowns as the show nears, the abstruse declarations about the purpose of performance art—Blanchett mimics all of these. Famous Barta pieces include “Gender Roles on Spin Cycle,” in which she sits inside an industrial dryer; “Domesticated,” in which she drinks from a bowl of milk on the floor while she screams “I am human!” over and over to a cat; and “Ein Tag, Ein Frankfurter,” in which she eats only one hot dog, very slowly, every day for a year as a way to process a breakup.
These pieces seem absurd, but no more than many that Abramovic really staged throughout her career. Consider “Carrying the Skeleton,” in which she hoisted a skeleton on her back and walked around with it as a way to show that she was confronting grief. In her real MoMA show, Abramovic sat in a gallery of the museum all day, allowing members of the public to sit across from her and experience her presence. Many cried, or said they had spiritual revelations. In Documentary Now!, Blanchett stages the same sort of experience, except it takes place in a sculpture of a public bathroom, in which patrons pass toilet paper to her underneath a stall (many cry, many have spiritual revelations). It is not that the episode doesn’t take performance art seriously; it simply suggests that perhaps Abramovic’s work has always been in dialogue with comedy.
In real life, Abramovic often worked with her longtime lover, Ulay. When they broke up, they made the separation official by staging a grand performance of meeting each other to say goodbye in the middle of the Great Wall of China. In “Waiting for the Artist,” Armisen plays the Ulay character, here named Dimo, a provocateur who is constantly trying to take credit for Izabella’s work and admits that he was cheating on her while she was ascetically devoted to her art. Abramovic had an emotional reunion with Ulay in her documentary, when he sat across from her and grabbed her hand in the museum. The parody offers no such closure. Instead, it allows Barta to humiliate Dimo in such a public and emasculating way (which I won’t spoil here) that the episode almost doubles as a radical work of feminist art.
As Blanchett cackles at the episode’s end, I felt grateful for Documentary Now! all over again. I also wondered what the show could become, if in future seasons it featured more episodes devoted to films with a woman at their heart, and also behind the camera. Documentary Now! has done an amazing job of deconstructing the very male, often grandiose world of documentary filmmaking, in which men stomp into the lives of others with a camera for the sake of making art. Now, I would like to see an investigation and acknowledgment of nonfiction shot through a woman’s lens—I’d love to see the show take on Blackfish, or Paris Is Burning, or Whatever Happened, Miss Simone? That’s a reality I would like to binge.