It is my position that “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” the Jiro Dreams of Sushi-inspired mockumentary from the second season of Documentary Now!, is one of the finest half hours of television of the past 5-10 years. It’s sweet and funny and silly and it tells a complete story in ways self-contained episodes rarely do. I watch it two to three times a year and I enjoy it every time. You don’t even need to see the original film to get it. There’s a universal story in there about fathers and sons and tradition. Sometimes I tear up a little at the end, which is a heck of an end to a ride that also involves a grown man who is terrified of chickens and a competing eatery that serves Skittles as a side dish and is called “Diego’s Fun Restaurant.” It’s on Netfix. Go watch it today.
I bring this up now for two reasons: One, because Documentary Now! is back for a third season; two, because I’ve been meaning to say it for a while now and this seemed like as good of an excuse as any. So there.
Things are a little different this season, though. The first two seasons were mostly a two-man on-screen operation, with SNL veterans Bill Hader and Fred Armisen inhabiting any number of characters that were loosely based on figures from notable real documentaries. Behind the scenes, other SNL veterans Seth Meyers and John Mulaney wrote some of the episodes, including a two-part Robert Evans parody (written by Mulaney, starring Hader) and the aforementioned “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” (written by Meyers, starring Armisen). This season, well, people were busy. Hader was working on Barry, Meyers has his nightly talk show, etc. You know what that means, right? Guest stars.
(On the subject of guest stars, it is truly fascinating to me that the show has had Helen Mirren — the real Helen Mirren, not an actress playing her — introducing every episode as though it’s a real, classic documentary for all three seasons. Helen Mirren! It might be my favorite part of the show.)
Examples include: Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton in the season premiere’s two-part take on Wild, Wild Country; Cate Blanchett in the show’s take on Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, which ends with such a bombastic visual gag that I gasped in my seat like I saw a ghost and, because I had my headphones in and no one knew what I was watching, worried the other people in the room with me; and a crew of comedy figures in the show’s spin on Original Cast Recording: Company, from Mulaney to Paula Pell to Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry to Richard Kind, who is a national treasure for this song from the episode, if nothing else.
This episode is probably my favorite of the season three batch, although it’s not like any of them are bad. The twist is that the musical is now about a Manhattan co-op, and the all-night recording session — with Mulaney leading the cast in the role of Stephen Sondheim — is filled with songs about living in the building. The songs are legitimately good and painfully catchy, too, and there’s one about a party that takes a few seconds to reveal what it’s really about and also made me gasp with laughter. I can’t wait for you guys to see it.
I could go on. I might, actually. It’s so good and so funny and so wickedly sharp and if it doesn’t make it into my top 10 shows of the year in December, the nine months between now and then will have been one of the strongest runs in television history. A ton of the credit for the show goes to its directors, Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono. Your Haders and Mulaneys and Armisens and Meyerses get most of the attention because we know their faces from our TVs, but the show doesn’t work without Thomas and Buono capturing the style and tone of the documentaries that inspire the episodes. They look good, visually, more like real documentaries than extended SNL sketches, and that makes a huge difference.
Am I raving too much? I feel like I might be raving too much. It’s not my fault. IFC distributed the screeners for this season over a month ago and I watched them all right away in about 48 hours. I’ve been waiting to talk about them since then. It’s been killing me. The season ends with a bowling documentary written by and starring Tim Robinson from SNL and Detroiters and you guys have to see Bobby Moynihan in it. I might explode before we get to it so let me get that out there now.
Let’s close with this: This show is probably not in everyone’s wheelhouse. It’s hyper-specific and hyper-targeted and I remain convinced that the whole thing was made for maybe 45-50 people in the whole world. You know how some jokes are two percenters? As in, two percent of the audience will get the joke but that two percent will love it 100 percent? Well, Documentary Now! is pretty much Two Percenter: The Series. The nice thing is that I am squarely in that two percent and I love it so much. It’s okay if you’re not. There’s plenty of other shows out there for you to occupy your time with. But if you’re with me in this little circle, if you enjoy laser-precise jokes about documentaries from 20 years ago and super-catchy songs about cocaine and nosy doormen, buddy, you are in for a real treat.
‘Documentary Now!’ season three premieres on IFC on Wednesday, February 20