I don’t know if there’s ever been a show that strikes a more effective balance between brilliant and stupid than Documentary Now! This, to be clear, is a compliment, and one of the highest I know how to give. The whole thing feels kind of like the smartest and funniest people you’ve ever met got in a room together to work on a project but only after they kept themselves awake for 48 hours and let sleep-deprived giggly mania kick in. This, once again, to be extremely clear, is also a compliment. Every episode starts with Helen Mirren introducing what she presents as a real documentary from a 50+-year series of documentaries and then the quote-unquote real documentary starts and reveals itself to be the silliest parody of the genre you’ve ever seen. There have somehow been three seasons of the show. The fourth one starts this week. I love all of it so much.
The briefest of background will help, in the name of professionalism: Documentary Now! is a series on IFC from a slew of SNL vets who are probably too busy to be doing this but are finding the time anyway, which is already a sign it’s going to be good. Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, John Mulaney, etc. Every episode takes the loosest framework of a notable documentary and bends and contorts the original into something resembling madness. Remember that big music documentary about the Eagles? They did that, but about a bunch of guys from Chicago who jumped on the “California sound” style. Remember the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture? They did that with Bill Hader as a fake Evans who desperately wanted to win an Oscar. Remember the documentary about the insane marathon sessions to record the soundtrack to Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company? They did that, but the musical was about living in a co-op in New York City and featured this song, which I insist you listen to if you’ve never heard it and listen to again if you have. The twist it takes is still bordering on magic to me.
I could go on. Actually… you know what? I will go on. Mostly because I want to talk about Juan Likes Rice and Chicken, the second episode in the second season, and a semi-parody of the real documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I promise I am not exaggerating when I say that it might be the best half-hour of television I have ever seen. It’s a satire, sure, and really just very goofy in parts. If you want to watch Fred Armisen try to catch a chicken with his bare hands or comprehend a high-end culinary establishment called Diego’s Fun Restaurant where you can put Skittles on your chicken if you want, that’s all in there. But it’s also… like… kind of beautiful. Even if you haven’t seen the original. It’s sweet and thoughtful and funny and smart and outrageously stupid. This is all I have ever asked for out of a television program.
The fourth season, delayed over two years due to a combination of busy schedules and the world crumbling under the weight of an ongoing pandemic, is more of the same. Thank God. The proceedings open with a two-part take on Burden of Dreams, a 1982 documentary that shows the troubled production of the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, which was filmed entirely in the jungles of Peru. Alexander Skarsgard plays the fake Herzog. Nicholas Braun — Cousin Greg from Succession — plays a former child star named Kevin Butterman. The whole thing flips itself on its head about four minutes into the action and becomes one of the dumbest and most creative things you’ll ever see on television. I smiled the whole way through.
There are other gems in here, too. There’s one that turns My Octopus Teacher into My Monkey Grifter. There’s one that turns a handful of fashion documentaries into a riff on a couple of hairdressers. When We Were Kings, the iconic documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman turns into a tale about some people who throw rocks. I ripped through all of the screeners within about 48 hours of receiving them. I’ve watched some of them twice. I’ll probably watch a few of them again when they run live on IFC this fall. I cannot stress to you in strong enough terms that this is all extremely my shit.
I think what I like most about it is just how audacious the whole endeavor is, both on paper and in practice. Like, think about the needle this sucker threads. It’s a show that kind of requires the viewer to have at least a loose knowledge of decades worth of notable documentary filmmaking and also, at times, the sense of humor of a nine-year-old boy. That’s a little crazy, and a little like something you would see in one of those weird SNL sketches that airs at 12:45 am. The fact that it exists at all is wild. The fact that it has worked for four full seasons is basically a miracle. And yet, here we are, in season four, still stretching the limits of smart and stupid as far as the world of television will allow.
The lesson here, as it usually is, is that really cool things can happen when you let really smart and funny people play in their own sandboxes for a while. That’s how you get shows like this, and Atlanta, and Fleabag, and I Think You Should Leave, and my beloved — and recently canceled, which I am still livid about — Joe Pera Talks With You. Shows that are one of one, singular pieces of entertainment that shift your whole perspective on what television is and can be. Taking big swings like this can be good. You might not always make contact, and you run the risk of looking like a doof if things go sideways on you, but when you rear back and let rip and something like this connects… yeah, buddy. That’s something special. That’s what we have here.
I still can’t believe Helen Mirren introduces each of these. What a wonderful little television program.