Documentary Now! is a collection of mockumentaries that play out like you could catch them on BBC Four at 11pm. The straight-faced nature means you could think you’ve genuinely stumbled on a strange and enticing narrative from the past 100 years of non-fiction filmmaking.
Like any good presentation, the series has a host to guide us and introduce every programme in a classy manner. Dame Helen Mirren steps out wearing a stunning dress, as images appear in a black room around her, detailing the documentary we are about to witness, adding a hint of context and an understanding of the directors involved – a sequence of sincerity that would only be noticed as funny if you understand that this whole show is made by comedians who adore cinema.
The play is that each episode is a take on an actual documentary, or a documentarian’s style, with the only constants being Dame Helen’s introductions and the use of cast/creators Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. In the first season alone, we witness a take on Grey Gardens that manages to become even weirder (to the point where it flat-out descends into found footage horror), a Nanook of the North/Nanook Revisited pastiche in which Armisen plays the Eskimo is outrageously hilarious, reaching heights of glee and goof that make you double over with laughter. But most importantly, the humour never undercuts the value of detailed aesthetic and technical elements: every documentary is painstakingly recrafted, with correct camera movements, aspect ratios, film grain and sound mixing. The authenticity is what raises the laughs inside.
Amazon Prime Video has all three seasons currently broadcast, a first for the UK, and just in time to celebrate three Emmy nominations. One is for the Season 3 episode ‘Original Cast Album: Co-Op’, a tour-de-force from writers Seth Meyers and John Mulaney. Mulaney appears in the episode as one of the writers – perfectly horrible as a human being – of a failing Broadway show, wherein Richard Kind, Paula Pell and others perform a fake musical as the cast recording takes place, just as they all discover it is the last time they will ever sing the songs. Kind’s out-of-breath fast-singing sequence is a dream in and of itself. Later in the season, and rightly nominated for its directing, Documentary Now! takes on Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present with Cate Blanchett playing a beloved performance artist about to embark on a career retrospective, and Fred Armisen as her lazy artist ex-lover, always bringing her down. It’s a phenomenally funny, surprisingly beautiful and heart-aching episode that ends with one of the best fist-in-air segments.
Made so earnestly that you almost forget it’s all for laughs, a fake documentary can still wield powers of human triumph. This can be seen in another episode about professional 10-pin bowlers, which builds to an actual edge-of-your-seat feeling as the climax comes about.
The show finds so many eras of documentary to examine, from the edgy, modern Vice-like documentaries with in-your-face journalists (including cool guy editor-in-chief Jack Black) to the early Maysles Brothers’ works and latter-day Pennebaker, plus a few jolts of Jonathan Demme with an inspired take on Talking Heads’ concert movie Stop Making Sense and Spalding Grey’s Swimming To Cambodia (where Bill Hader dominates the screen as a version of the monologist). Where Documentary Now! shines most, however, is the double-length episodes, where the films get to unravel deeper and longer. A take on Alison Ellwood’s The History of the Eagles sees Hader and Armisen as Chicago guys who fake a California feel to make a hit record, with talking heads from Cameron Crowe, Haim, Kenny Loggins and Darryl Hall making everything feel authentic and exciting. Hader fronts an exhaustive look at Hollywood with a riff on 1994’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, with a look at one producer failing upwards, carefully inserting him into real footage from Oscar ceremonies and other events – more cameos from Anne Hathaway, Faye Dunaway and Mia Farrow give added place/time authenticity.
Perfectly recreated comedy from and for cinephiles, Documentary Now! is about as niche a TV show can be, but if you find yourself feeling the vein they are picking with each episode, you can end up finally laughing at The Thin Blue Line or Wild Wild Country as we all should and would be doing if they weren’t based on awful things happening to real human beings. Long live Documentary Now! and the redressing of reality and fiction in one bizarre, specific, hilarious bundle.
Documentary Now!: Season 1 to 3 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.