By now we know that any program featuring Fred Armisen is worth checking out, but the author is not sure how we missed this splendid mockumentary documentary series.
Photo: Fred Armisen as Rex – Documentary Now! 306. Photo Credit: Rhys Thomas/IFC
12 May 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Documentary Now! is an American mockumentary television series, created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas, that premiered on August 20, 2015, on IFC. Armisen and Hader star in many episodes, and Thomas and Alex Buono co-direct most episodes. Hosted by Helen Mirren, the series spoofs celebrated documentary films by parodying the style of each documentary with a similar, but fictitious, subject.
Documentary Now! The Final Transmission episode, a riff on Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. Photograph: IFC
Every December I contribute to the Guardian’s end-of-year best TV list, and it’s sometimes a little bittersweet; partly because a show I truly love will only make it into the mid-40s, and partly because I know my list won’t be entirely complete. Twice now, this has been because IFC’s Documentary Now! was unavailable to watch legally in the UK.
Which is stupid, because Documentary Now! is a work of incredible pedigree. Created by Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen – along with director Rhys Thomas – it’s a series of perfectly observed, highly specific and obsessively crafted documentary pastiches delivered in the straightest way imaginable. To watch an episode is to witness a labour of love take flight, and having to leave Documentary Now! off my list has broken my heart.
But this year will be different, because Documentary Now! has just appeared on Amazon Prime. It should be the very next thing you watch.
The sheer level of care that goes into every single episode is breathtaking. In an age where television still likes to patronise its viewers, the series works on an understanding of shared appreciation. There’s very little hand-holding here; it expects you to have seen the documentaries it parodies.
You’ll still have fun if you haven’t but, if you have, you will enjoy it like nothing else. In many ways, Documentary Now! is the perfect show for the age of Peak TV. It’s too specific for everyone to enjoy, but those who like it will love it with their entire hearts.
Look, like it or not, Documentary Now! is going to be in my end-of-year list. Here are the standout episodes you should try first, so at least you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The first ever Documentary Now! episode is arguably also the best possible introduction to the series. A takeoff of 1975’s Grey Gardens, about two reclusive aristocrats living in poverty in a crumbling mansion, Sandy Passage is a shade broader than most other episodes.
rmisen and Hader are both playing women here, and the subject matter has to be pushed into an uncharacteristically absurd area to top the genuine batshittery of the source material. But the look of it is absolutely perfect; the lengths that the directors must have gone to in order to replicate Grey Gardens pays off in spades.
There is a strong case for saying that David Gelb’s aggressively reverent 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi – about an ageing chef who jumps through agonising, pointless hoops in his quest for perfection – is one of the most influential of the past 25 years. And this makes Juan Likes Rice & Chicken my personal favourite.
The action is transplanted from Tokyo to Colombia, and the subject now only serves chicken, rice, a cup of coffee and half a banana to his diners, each produced only after a million identical rituals are performed. It’s hilarious, and also much more poignant than anyone would expect. Watch it, then listen to writer Seth Meyers’ episode of the Good One podcast that explores the episode in more depth.
Perhaps because its inception came from a SNL sketch about an upsettingly Tory punk, Documentary Now! tends to excel best when parodying musical documentaries. Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, Parts 1 & 2, which produced the single Catalina Breeze, almost made this list. But for sheer scale of ambition, it has been beaten by Final Transmission.
An incredibly authentic riff on Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, it was filmed as a live concert at the thousand-seater San Gabriel playhouse, California, and features the cast tearing through a 10-song setlist learned over a single weekend. That it works at all is amazing; that it works this well is nothing short of a miracle.
Writer John Mulaney is a noted Broadway fanatic, and this is borne out in his parody of Original Cast Album: Company, which captured Elaine Stritch’s arduous repeated attempts to correctly perform a Sondheim song during a gruelling all-night recording session. Stritch’s analogue here is played by Paula Pell, who mimics the sequence with a growing impatience that is excruciating to watch. Mulaney plays the Sondheim figure. Sondheim watched the episode. His notes afterwards were: “It’s fine. I don’t have any comments on it.”
Between the second and third seasons of Documentary Now!, Hader had shifted focus to his HBO show Barry, which meant that his presence was filled by a number of guest stars. None worked more successfully than Waiting for the Artist, because Waiting for the Artist has Cate Blanchett. Blanchett plays a Marina Abramović-style performance artist, whose work variously involves painting her body and flinging herself at a wall, or putting a bucket on her head and running through mousetraps. And, honest to god, it might be the best performance she has ever given. She is troubled and abstract, sensual and focused, totally committed and brilliantly funny. An almost perfect half hour.