For now four seasons, Documentary Now! has managed to take the most specific joke and give it a surprisingly broad sense of humor. Creators Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas certainly have experience with this, having all worked on Saturday Night Live, but Documentary Now! is a precise mixture of weirdness, as each episode crafts a parody of a different documentary—a genre in and of itself not necessarily known for its wider appeal. Yet in these four seasons, Documentary Now! has been one of the funniest and peculiar shows on television because of a clear love for these films, their makers, and the fascinating stories they tell.
But the true brilliance of Documentary Now! comes in how this series manages to work for the audience who know their Maysles from their Morris, yet also is equally hilarious for a person who has never seen a documentary in their lives. You don’t have to be familiar with Original Cast Album: Company or The War Room to laugh at the insane satire of these films, but for those familiar with the work, Documentary Now! works on an even deeper level. In the show’s fourth season, Documentary Now! continues this boggling ability to attract polar opposite audiences, and with these five new spoofs, this remains true, even as the jokes become even more exact and pointed in their specificity.
Season 4 almost starts at its broadest point, then with each new episode, slowly shifts to even more singular humor. The premiere episode, the two-part “Soldier of Illusion,” is the season’s best and one of the most ridiculous and brilliant episodes of the show. Written by John Mulaney and starring Alexander Skarsgård as Rainer Wolz—a very clear Werner Herzog surrogate—“Soldier of Illusion” is a take on Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, which itself was about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Here, Rainer is trying to both make a documentary about the ways of the Duskir People of the Ular Mountains, while also attempting to film the pilot for the CBS sitcom, Bachelor Nanny.
Mulaney has written some of Documentary Now!’s best episodes, most notably “The Bunker” and “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” and with directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas—who direct the majority of this season’s episodes—there’s a distinct passion for the films of Herzog and Burden of Dreams. Skarsgård is particularly delightful, and the joke of Rainer shifting from this foreign land to a typical 80s comedy never gets old thanks to his dedication to the role. Equally great is August Diehl as Dieter Daimler as Rainer’s frequent and violently eccentric collaborator—an ode to Klaus Kinski that oddly isn’t too exaggerated.
But “Soldier of Illusion” is an excellent example of Documentary Now!’s ability at reaching universal appeal, all through a meticulously composed parody. On its own, “Soldier of Illusion” is a strange enough idea to be funny, but with the knowledge of Herzog’s work, this becomes truly hysterical. Not content to just take on Fitzcarraldo, Mulaney’s script manages to throw in sly references to movies like Grizzly Man and even his death row documentary, 2011’s Into the Abyss. Again, Documentary Now! clearly has a dedication to doing these films and filmmakers justice with their absurd attention to detail and committing to the bit.
The season’s second episode, “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport,” takes on documentaries like 3 Salons at the Seaside and The September Issue, and starring Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter as the title stylists. Written by Seth Meyers, “Two Hairdressers” shows how cleverly this team can shift their sense of humor to whatever type of film they want to explore. “Two Hairdressers” is mostly a quiet episode, centered around the conversations these women have at this shop, punctuated with moments of silliness, and Blanchett gets the opportunity to play in a more ridiculous playground than we expect to see her in. Despite the fact that the episode couldn’t be tonally further from “Soldier of Illusion,” both are excellent yin and yang, as we can see how wild and crazy the show can be, but also low-key entertaining in an entirely different fashion.
But this dichotomy can also be seen in “How They Threw Rocks,” also written by Meyers, and starring Trystan Gravelle as the star of the Welsh sport Craig Maes, in which two competitors literally throw rocks at each other until one loses. This When We Were Kings spoof, again, goes broad by centering around two men chucking rocks at each other from close proximity, but also is even more hilarious for those aware of the Muhammad Ali doc the episode is based on. Working similarly is “My Money Grifter,” starring Jamie Demetriou and also written by Meyers, in a take on My Octopus Teacher that takes that story to a ridiculous extreme.
These three episodes written by Meyers don’t have quite the intricate nature of an episode like “Soldier of Illusion,” but they do show how well Documentary Now! plays in the middle ground. The concepts themselves are over-the-top, but the parody underneath is like a cherry on top of the insanity within the episode.
On the other end of that is the season finale, “Trouver Frisson,” written by series newcomers Matt Pacult and Tamsin Rawady, in which Liliiane Rovère plays Ida Leos—an Agnes Varda type, right down to the iconic haircut—who tries to figure out why she no longer gets goosebumps. Like “Soldier of Illusion,” “Trouver Frisson” is directly a take on Beaches of Agnes and Gleaners and I, yet also plays with the life and work of Varda in general. The dedication of “Trouver Frisson” to recreating Varda’s aesthetic makes it easily the hardest episode for the uninitiated to dive into. “Trouver Frisson” becomes one of the rare episodes that might not work without knowing the original work, yet again, with that knowledge, “Trouver Frisson” works beautifully, building to a punchline that makes the entire episode better in hindsight.
Great parody works when the passion can be felt for the original project, and with Documentary Now!, the often shocking attention to detail and the diligent appreciation for these films shows that this season and this show, in general, contains some of the best modern parody in film or television.