“Art is not supposed to be safe. It’s supposed to be radical.”
Documentaries are powerful tools that aim to illuminate individuals, topics, or causes as the style of film immerses the audience into this new world and prepares them for the narrative that they’re about to be sold.
Documentaries can turn ordinary people into heroes, educate you about persistent problems that you never even knew existed, or simply shine a light on something that it’s long overdue to shine a light on. All of this magic of non-fiction filmmaking is present in Documentary Now!, it just also expertly figures out how to use the language of documentaries to deliver huge laughs. Three seasons in, this team has mastered this formula and delivers what might be their strongest season yet.
Documentary Now! continues to provide brilliant, irreverent documentary parodies, but with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s drastically busier schedules, Documentary Now! Season 3 (or 52, take your pick) makes the wise decision to staff out many of its lead roles to an impressive list of legitimate movie stars, like Michael Keaton, Owen Wilson, and Cate Blanchett (!!!). Definitely part of the fun of the first two seasons of the show was in Hader and Armisen’s uncanny resilience in playing so many different characters, but with the gap between seasons two and three of the show already more than two years, this approach is a more than suitable solution rather than waiting even longer for Hader and Armisen’s schedules to open up (Armisen is still in half of the season and Hader pens an installment).
While this may disappoint some people, others will be delighted over the burst of new life that this change gives the series. Everyone is fully committed and ready to play ball and that’s sometimes even funnier when it’s someone like Michael C. Hall. The celebrity-of-the-week quality of the season does push Documentary Now!‘s needle even closer to Saturday Night Live territory, but this still feels like the same show and even if Hader and Armisen aren’t on screen as much, their voices (as well as Seth Meyers’) are ever-present. At the same time, other like-minded writers from the team’s connected network also get to join the party, like Detroiters’ Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin, or Duffy Boudreau, who’s been writing over on Barry with Hader.
At this point it’s no surprise that the series can pull off such shockingly accurate parodies of the documentaries that they put in their crosshairs. Whether it’s the performances, jokes, or the aesthetic and style of the documentary of choice, Documentary Now! is always painfully accurate. This season also finds opportunities to mash together certain documentaries—like Wild Wild Country and The Source Family—in inspired ways and create even stronger, more layered parodies in the process.
Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas direct the hell out of this season and there isn’t a single episode that doesn’t go above and beyond. The season involves a sprawling amount of different film types and documentary styles to appropriately mimic its respective source material. The series never fails to properly find the right film tools and look (talking heads, news reports, archival footage, performance recordings…) to tell its stories. One installment, “Long Gone,” is even filmed in freaking Budapest, Hungary, so this season really goes for broke and doesn’t hold back in terms of its scale.
The first two seasons of the series checked off most of the major documentaries from the list, but there has been such an influx of doc content on services like Netflix as of late that the show still has ample material to draw from, including more recent and topical titles. This season of the show also continues the tradition of delivering more music documentaries. While yet another musician-based documentary is perhaps not something that this series needs, it keeps its format feeling fresh by the bizarre trajectory that its subject’s career goes through. There’s also just such clear love and joy from the performers in these type of episodes that it’s hard to begrudge them.
This season of the show also gets the opportunity to feature some documentaries that are “original” and not based on pre-existing works, such as one documentary that follows one of Armisen’s characters on his journey to meet his idol, famous cartoonist, Gary Larson. In this case, jokes are derived from the documentarian himself and the personal, DIY style of his production, which adds an interesting wrinkle to the episode. A lot of these documentaries drape themselves in opulence, but it’s an even funnier idea to have a documentary with a bunch of disinterested subjects and it feels like some irresponsible, oblivious child has grabbed a video camera. Nathan For You fans may even pick up on a certain “Finding Frances” vibe to the installment. It makes me curious to see how the series would handle some Creep or Poughkeepsie Tapes-esque production where a serial killer or someone with serious problems wields the camera. Or to take a look at the conversation that can arise when there’s disconnect between the documentarian and the subject.
Documentary Now! is a show that is just as in love with its artifice and aesthetic as it is with storytelling and humor. It knows how to find the ridiculousness of each documentary that it lampoons and then hyperbolize it to fantastic, hilarious effect. Like before with this show, even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the reference material that these episodes are based on, you’ll still love these installments.
The content and performances are funny and absurd enough that they transcend the documentary format that they mock and stand on their own. This is a show that is resolved to tell the strangest, sweetest, and most unusual stories from the ignored corners of the world. It presents perfect stories about these lovable losers that make you actually care about these schlubs and perhaps even briefly forget that these are not, in fact, real documentaries about actual people.
Episodes vary and sprawl a wide range of topics, like a look at the ordinary faces from a televised professional bowling league, the ballooning dangers of a charismatic spiritual leader and his cult, or a gloomy retrospective look at a troubled, influential jazz musician’s life, careers, and influences.
Another looks at the cast recording of a Broadway musical, which not only gets in a wealth of glorious theater jokes, but also has personalities like Taran Killam, John Mulaney, and James Urbaniak to convincingly sell it all, and anchored around an actual Broadway star, Renee Elise Goldsberry. “Original Cast Recording: Co-op” might be the lowest impact and least substantial of the episodes, but it’s definitely one of the most fun. The songs are also legitimately catchy and I would 100% buy this fake album.
One episode is a bizarre documentary that’s an ode to cartoonist, Gary Larson, of The Far Side fame. In this case, as much as it’s a silly, heartfelt character study on a committed creator, it also genuinely functions as a documentary on Larson and his popular single-panel comic. Most episodes happen to function on this dual level, but with this entry it’s especially so. It’s a playful idea, but there’s such clear love for Larson’s work. “Searching for Mr. Larson” is very much a showcase for Armisen in the same way that season two’s “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” was a one-man show for Hader’s talents.
Documentary Now! Season 3 is a triumph and none of the individual pieces of this season are weak. This year is easily as strong as the show’s second season, but “Searching for Mr. Larson,” “Original Cast Recording: Company,” and “Waiting for the Artist” are particular standouts that highlight what this show is capable of when it really clicks. This is such a weird, atypical comedy series, yet the show’s team continues to find ways to make it work. With such exceptional skill and passion present, it hopefully won’t take another two years for the next season of Documentary Now! to hit.
Documentary Now! Season 3 premieres on IFC, February 20 at 11 p.m. ET
This review is based on all seven half-hour episodes of Documentary Now Season 3.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.