It sounds clichéd, but there really is nothing else on TV like “Documentary Now!” The IFC Channel program produced by Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Alex Buono, and others, is one of the smartest comedies of the last decade, a show that knows it’s going to play best for a relatively limited fan base and so it doesn’t desperately try to appeal to a broader one. I do believe that it’s smart and funny enough that people could enjoy all four seasons even if they’ve never seen any of the documentaries being parodied, but the truth is that this is a much richer show if one can connect the dots. Said dots in the fourth season include references to the work of legends like Werner Herzog and Agnès Varda, along with spoofs of specific non-fiction films like “When We Were Kings” and “My Octopus Teacher.” As with any season of “Documentary Now!,” some episodes are funnier than others, but all six are worth your time. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait 3.5 years again for a new season.
The third season of “Documentary Now!” ended in March 2019, long before the pandemic, and it felt for a while like it might be the last. In February of this year, IFC announced the gang was getting back together for a fourth outing, and this one includes guest appearances by Alexander Skarsgard, Cate Blanchett, Nicholas Braun, and Jamie Demetriou. If you’re unfamiliar, the concept of “Documentary Now!” is that it’s a fictional TV series that re-broadcasts famous documentaries, hosted by Helen Mirren, now in its 53rd season. Each episode spoofs a specific documentary or type of documentary with a completely different visual language, structure, and cast—although Fred Armisen often appears in multiple episodes. Highlights from previous seasons include the “Grey Gardens” spoof “Sandy Passage,” “The War Room” spoof “The Bunker,” and the amazing “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a spoof of D.A. Pennebaker’s doc about the recording of the Company cast album.
For the fourth season, the creators of “Documentary Now!” tackle some of the biggest voices in non-fiction filmmaking, starting with a riff on Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams,” a fantastic film about the tumultuous production of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” A two-part episode titled “Soldiers of Illusions” casts Skarsgard as the Herzog stand-in, trying to film a documentary about a tribe of indigenous people while also making a multi-camera sitcom called “Bachelor Nanny” at the same time. Yes, there’s a Klaus Kinski stand-in. “My Monkey Grifter” riffs on the recent Oscar winner about the man and his octopus and gives “The Afterparty” star Demetriou a fantastic platform. It’s one of the funniest episodes of the season. Another laugh-out-loud gem comes in the form of “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport,” which reshapes fashion industry docs like “The September Issue” but set in a non-descript hair salon.
Two things really elevate “Documentary Now!”—intelligent writing and undeniable fandom. These episodes wouldn’t work if the writers were mocking Herzog or Varda. There’s love in the spoofing of their art, especially with Varda, which plays as much like a love letter to a legend as it does a comedy. It feels like Varda herself would have adored it. Great parody requires a deep understanding of the subject being parodied, and that rich knowledge base and passion for non-fiction filmmaking is what makes “Documentary Now!” so great. It’s so wonderful to have it back.
Whole season screened for review. Premieres October 19th on IFC.
Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
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