From This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show on the big screen, to The Office and American Vandal on the small screen, the history of the mockumentary has been rich and uproarious. But we’d argue that few documentary send-ups on film or television have ever come close to satirical variety of Documentary Now! – a little-seen but enormously clever anthology series hosted with gravitas by the great Helen Mirren, and written by modern-day sketch comedy geniuses Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Mulaney and Seth Meyers.
Documentary Now! purports to be a long-running news magazine series, introduced in the midst of its milestone 50th season (akin to ESPN’s 30 for 30). Currently in its third season (or 52nd season in the show’s universe), this obscure gem on IFC continues to delight with a wide-range of peculiarly precise spoofs on iconic nonfiction films ranging from The Artist Is Present to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. More than just superficial jabs at the format, it’s genuinely startling how accurately each episode imitates the style and tone of it’s source material.
The show does revel in subversively poking fun at the genre’s tropes, but beyond the skewering, Documentary Now! is actually a sincere love letter to the craft of documentary filmmaking. The painstaking attention to detail implies a reverence to the medium, underneath the irreverent comedy. A lot of its sly humour lies in its specificity, and yet often times, the jokes are used to sharply explore the grey ethics and persuasive power of subjective observation through compelling mimicry. Here’s our guide to the geekiest mockumentary on TV.
“Sandy Passage” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Inspired by: Grey Gardens (1975)
This homage to voyeur cinema follows the bizarre exploits of two shut-in residents in a ruined East Hampton mansion. The novelistic slice-of-life film is a great introduction to just how seriously deadpan Documentary Now! can be when dealing with the absurd and the creepy.
“Kunuk Uncovered” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Inspired by: Nanook of the North (1922)
Robert Flaherty’s study of an Inuit man in the Canadian Arctic tundra is widely billed as the first documentary. However, later reports suggest that a lot of that film was actually staged. This is a dryly funny inquiry into a documentarian’s obligation to the truth, and the integrity of his subject.
“DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Inspired by: VICE News (2013 – present)
While VICE has done some outstanding investigative journalism, their cocksure pieces and hipster correspondents are ripe for satire. Jack Black does a mean Shane Smith impression, while Ty Dolla $ign cameos as himself in this suicidally reckless search for a Mexican drug lord.
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie” (Season 1, Episode 4)
Inspired by: The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Long before American Vandal satirized true-crime documentaries, Documentary Now! already perfected the formula with this episode. From artistic re-enactments to the gotcha testimony of biased police, this episode critiques upon the widespread appeal of true-life murder mysteries.
“A Town, a Gangster, a Festival” (Season 1, Episode 5)
Inspired by: Hollywood (1980)
Focusing on an annual festival in Árborg, Iceland honoring Chicago gangster Al Capone – this episode is an endearing look at the strange ways American pop culture can take on a life of their own in distant communities. This is a strangely sweet ode to some of Les Blank’s genial works.
“Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” (Season 1, Episode 6 and 7)
Inspired by: History of the Eagles (2013)
Borrowing from many “behind the music” documentaries, the season one finale steps up it’s scale by inventing a fictional 70s’ band, and writing credibly amazing songs to bolster their fake legacy. Featuring testimonies from Irving Azoff, Cameron Crowe, Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, and HAIM – this two-parter follows the Blue Jean Committee through their rise, fall and reunion during their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Besides its homage to the rock-doc format, this succeeds as a genuinely affecting and richly drawn character study of friendship, art and regret.
“The Bunker” (Season 2, Episode 1)
Inspired by: The War Room (1993)
Loosely based on a documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which turned campaign strategists George Stephanopoulos and James Carville into stars. This episode hijacks that 90s’ idealism with mean-spirited modern politics, with hilariously toxic results.
“Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Inspired by: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
A meticulous and loving replica of David Gelb’s sumptuous food porn nonfiction (he also created Chef’s Table), this episode follows a Colombian chef, and his sons who struggle to live in his shadow. This moving portrait of family and legacy will leave your heart warm and bellies hungry.
“Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Inspired by: Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
A confluence of Jonathan Demme’s performance films and the dramatic orations of Spalding Gray, this episode consists entirely of an artist’s stage monologue. Younger fans who’ve seen Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King or BoJack Horseman’s “Free Churro” might get the idea.
“Globesman” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Inspired by: Salesman (1969)
Capturing the miserable daily lives of travelling salesmen in stark black-and-white, this episode journeys with the sad-sacks forced to sell globes door to door. This sardonic road trip of chain-smoking and forced pitches feels like Death of a Salesman in mockumentary form.
“Final Transmission” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Inspired by: Stop Making Sense (1984)
Based on Talking Heads’ acclaimed concert film, this episode intercuts performance footage a fictional New Wave band’s final show, with interviews that give unexpected context to the music and the band’s dysfunction. Fred Armisen’s impression of an aloof art-rock frontman is to die for.
“Mr. Runner Up: My Life As an Oscar Bridesmaid” (Season 2, Episode 6 and 7)
Inspired by: The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
This finale two-parter is a fast-paced and farcical adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ self-aggrandizing memoir. Archival footage and fake films spanning multiple decades are carefully re-created, mostly for swift meta jabs at Hollywood. Featuring stars like Peter Fonda and Anne Hathaway who cameo as themselves, this wildly self-important tale about a producer chasing his first Oscar is even hilarious narrated (unreliably) by the producer himself. More than industry inside jokes, this boffo parody incisively captures the shallowness of studio executives.
“Batsh*t Valley” (Season 3, Episode 1 and 2)
Inspired by: Wild Wild Country (2018)
While previous seasons parodied obscure gems, this two-part premiere offers the series’ most accessible entry yet by lampooning recent Netflix sensation Wild Wild Country. Following a controversial cult that upends a small town in Oregon – this episode turns from an expose into the cult’s feud with the local community, into a farcical sting operation that goes hilariously awry. Michael Keaton and Owen Wilson guest as frustrated FBI agent Bill Doss and hippie ashram Ra-Shawbard respectively, lending star power to twisty script that’s as funny as it is surprising.
“Original Cast Album: Co-Op” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Inspired by: Original Cast Album: Company (1970)
A send-up to the studio recording of Broadway hit Company, this is a vérité parody that will enrapt fans of musical theatre. Teaming up with composer Eli Bolin, the episode’s efforts to approximate Stephen Sondheim’s numbers are astonishing, as are it’s musically-skilled actors.
“Waiting for the Artist” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Inspired by: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2010)
Riffing on Marina Abramovic, Cate Blanchett immerses herself as Izabella Barta, a provocative performance artist preparing for a career retrospective. Beyond it’s uproarious art world satire, lies a tragic metaphor in Izabella’s work that elevates this episode beyond a simple pisstake.
“Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter From the Far Side” (Season 3, Episode 5)
Inspired by: Dear Mr. Watterson (2013)
As fan docus become prevalent (where fans just gush about their pop culture obsessions), the show smartly borrows from an enthusiastic documentary about Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes to show why documentarians shouldn’t necessarily make a movie about themselves.
“Long Gone” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Inspired by: Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Mirroring a slew of 80s’ documentaries about jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Chet Baker, this episode tackles the complicated legacy of male genius, and romanticization their indulgent behaviour. Natasha Lyonne guests as the abandoned mother of the musician’s two children.
“Any Given Saturday Afternoon” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Inspired by: A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (2005)
The funniest episode of season three comes in it’s finale. Centering around a bowling league’s effort make the sport as popular as it used to be – the episode stars Bobby Moynihan, Tim Robinson, and Michael C. Hall as three larger-than-life pro bowlers striving to make it happen.