In case you missed the news, “Documentary Now!” has been recommissioned for a record-breaking 53rd season, just days after the final episode of the show’s previous season, “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” was aired.
If you’re wondering how such a long-running show slipped under your radar, don’t worry. “Documentary Now!” hasn’t really been around since the mid-60s. Like everything else about this show, it’s a fake.
Created by four alumni of “Saturday Night Live” and aired on the IFC channel, “Documentary Now!” is a collection of near-perfect pastiches of the documentary genre, so lovingly and accurately recreated that one could almost be forgiven for mistaking each episode for a genuine documentary.
From the moment the opening credits appear on screen, the viewer begins to question everything. Using scenes from classic documentaries, the show’s creators deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction. The grainy, black-and-white footage, lifted from genuine documentaries, immediately gives the show a veneer of authenticity: short snippets from “Roger & Me,” “Man on Wire” and “Don’t Look Back” give the impression that these classic documentaries were all created by the “Documentary Now!” team and hint at what is coming.
But the hoax doesn’t end there. When the credits end and the swirling music dies down, each episode is introduced by none other than Dame Helen Mirren, whose perfect British accent and straight-faced gravitas complete the smokescreen.
And that’s when the fun begins. Over the course of three seasons – yes, the first season of “Documentary Now!” was presented as its 50th – Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas lovingly but brutally mock some of the most-admired documentaries of the past decades.
The variety of documentary parodied over the course of three seven-episode seasons is staggering: from “The Thin Blue Line,” an award-winning 1988 documentary about a man wrongly convicted of murder, to the 2011 hit “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” via the 1922 silent classic “Nanook of the North.”
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These pastiches are so accurate and so subtle that the uninitiated viewer could easily be forgiven for thinking that the subject matter is real. Take, for example, “A Town, a Gangster, a Festival,” which is a pastiche of (or an homage to) Les Blank’s portrayals of American traditional musicians. In it, a documentary crew travels to Árborg, Iceland for the annual festival honoring American gangster Al Capone. The premise is, of course, a joke, but it is on just the right side of believable.
Similarly, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, Parts 1 & 2” is a double episode telling the story of a 1970s soft-rock band, which eerily echoes the story of The Eagles, as told in the 2013 documentary by Alison Ellwood.
Most remarkably, the creators manage to fill each episode with jokes that are accessible to viewers who are not aware of the ‘source’ material. Even if you haven’t seen “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen” – a 2006 PBS documentary about a professional bowling league – you will laugh at “Any Given Saturday Afternoon.”
The authenticity of “Documentary Now!” is augmented by a long list of guest stars, some of whom appear as themselves (or exaggerated versions of themselves) and some of whom play characters in the “Documentary Now!” Perhaps the best performances was given by Cate Blanchett, who portrays avant-garde artist Izabella Barta in “Waiting for the Artist,” a painfully accurate parody of “Marina Abramovic´: The Artist is Present.” Some of the scenes in the “Documentary Now!” version are caricatures of near-identical scenes in the original.
In “Batshit Valley,” the two-part episode which launched Season 3 (sorry, Season 52), Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton put in star performances, while in “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid” (based, very loosely, on Robert Evans’ “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) the guest cast includes Peter Bogdanovich, Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow, Peter Fonda, and Anne Hathaway – all appearing as themselves.
Perhaps most impressive of all – beyond the gags, the hilarious premises and the fine writing – is the accuracy with which “Documentary Now!” recreates the style of each of its ‘victims.’ “Kunuk Uncovered,” for example, combines ancient-looking footage in the style of its inspiration, the aforementioned “Nanook of the North,” with contemporary interviews with its subjects. “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” which is a parody of every VICE News documentary rolled into one, uses the same garish graphics as VICE, the same narrative style and the same shaky, handheld cameras. If it were not for the absurd premise and the incessant jokes, it would be easy to confuse the pastiche for the original. When the filmmakers enter the house of a victim of El Chingon, a fictitious drug lord in Mexico, they warn viewers that “the poverty you are about to see may be disturbing to your first-world sensibilities.” The camera then cuts to a television set in the corner of the room and one of the filmmakers points to “a first-generation PlayStation.”
Given the rise in popularity of ‘true crime’ documentaries and podcasts, there would appear to be plenty of material for the “Documentary Now!” team to get their teeth into in Season 4. When IFC ordered a new season, Meyers responded by saying that, “This has, and will always be, a cash grab. There’s money in hyper-specific fake documentaries which is why we keep making them.” Like “Documentary Now!” itself, we can only assume that was a joke.