Documentary Now! is a miracle of a TV show. I still can’t quite believe it exists, let alone is now on the cusp of airing a third season. The IFC series was created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas as a love letter of sorts to the documentary genre, as each episode finds actors putting a comedy spin on a famous documentary. The first season saw Hader and Armisen onscreen taking on seminal works like Grey Gardens and The Thin Blue Line, while Season 2 brought us hilarious spins on films like Stop Making Sense and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The show’s commitment to the bit has undoubtedly contributed to its longevity, as each episode feels distinct from a visual, tonal, and narrative standpoint. The trend continues in Season 3 (or “Season 52” as the Helen Mirren-hosted show-within-a-show calls it), as the writing, execution, and performances are just as sharp—and hilarious—as ever.
With Hader busy creating, writing, directing, and starring in the excellent HBO series Barry and Armisen busy appearing in a dozen other projects at once, Documentary Now Season 3 breaks from tradition in that the two SNL alums don’t appear onscreen in every episode. Armisen still manages to appear in three of them, but Hader unfortunately doesn’t show up onscreen at all—although he remains a producer on the series and co-wrote the season’s fourth episode “Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter from the Far Side.”
But the lower profiles of Hader and Armisen in Season 3 gives Documentary Now an opportunity to introduce new faces with terrific results. Owen Wilson kicks things off with the two-part season opener “Batshit Valley,” written by Seth Meyers. This one is a spin on both the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country and the 2012 doc The Source Family, which finds Wilson playing a very chill cult leader. Michael Keaton also makes a welcome return to comedy as the FBI agent hot on his trail (or is he?). The two-parter plays out in somewhat epic fashion, mixing present day interviews with archival footage to tell the story of a cult that creates a commune in a small Oregon town—much to the chagrin of its residents. It’s delightful and silly and goes some really surprising places.
Then there’s Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett (yes the Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett) starring in “Waiting for the Artist,” where the actress plays an acclaimed performance artist attempting to prepare for a career retrospective. Written by Meyers and co-starring Armisen, it’s inspired by film Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present and Blanchett is unsurprisingly phenomenal in the lead role. It’s a really fun watch throughout with some good-natured ribbing of the art world, but the ending takes the whole thing to another level as it recontextualises the entire episode as setup to one tremendous punch-line.
There’s really not a bad episode in the Season 3 bunch. The season finale, Any Given Saturday Afternoon, is a great showcase for former SNL alum and Detroiters (RIP) co-star Tim Robinson, and features a Bobby Moynihan bit that had me laughing so hard I had to pause the episode. And the aforementioned “Searching for Mr. Larson”, written by Bill Hader and Duffy Boudreau, is a vehicle for Armisen to skewer documentaries in which the filmmaker makes the movie all about themselves at the expense of pretty much everything else.
But the standout to my musical-loving heart has to be “Original Cast Album: Co-op.” Based on the 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company, which followed an all-night cast recording of the Stephen Sondheim musical, this one similarly follows an all-night recording—except partway through recording, the cast learns that their Broadway show has closed. They’re forced to continue through the recording session to hysterical results, as folks like Richard Kind, Paul Pell, and Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry belt their hearts out to ridiculous (and genuinely good!) songs about people living in a co-op. I would legitimately buy the soundtrack album for this episode.
It should come as no surprise that the episode was written by Meyers and John Mulaney, and Mulaney co-stars in the episode as the Sondheim-esque figure who wrote the musical and has a particularly devastating way of delivering criticism. This thing is a tour de force and one of the best episodes of Documentary Now! ever made.
But the MVPs of the season—and of the series, really—are Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas, who in addition to serving as executive producers also directed the episodes. Not only is each episode visually distinct, but the aesthetic of each documentary is pitch perfect, to the point where I would completely believe these were all directed by different people. “Original Cast Album: Co-op” feels like footage ripped right out of the 70s; “Batshit Valley” feels like watching a VHS tape of local news recordings; and “Long Gone” evokes its Eastern European setting in gorgeous black-and-white photography. It helps that IFC allows Documentary Now! to actually film on location—“Long Gone” was shot in Budapest—but it’s a testament to the directors’ talent that each episode looks and feels like a genuine documentary.
If the first two seasons of Documentary Now! proved that there’s a bounty of comedy to be mined from fake documentaies that vary wildly in style and subject matter, Season 3 shows that, while Hader and Armisen are missed, this series could go on for many, many years as long as the core writing, producing, and directing team remains. The show is as funny and fresh as ever, and with the documentary genre really hitting the mainstream in a big way lately (see: last year’s box office of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Free Solo, and RBG), there’s no lack of subject matter for the talented Documentary Now! team to mine in the years to come.
Please keep Documentary Now! going for as long as humanly possible.
People Who Enjoy Good Things
Documentary Now! Season 3 premieres on IFC on February 20th.