‘Documentary Now!’ Is Still One of the Wittiest Series on Television


‘Documentary Now!’ Is Still One of the Wittiest Series on Television

IFC via AMC

Documentary Now! ought to be one of the most niche shows on television. Who has seen My Octopus Teacher and the works of Werner Herzog, but still finds time to worship comedic legends like Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers? There are dozens of us!

And yet, the popularity of Documentary Now! still skyrockets with each new season, as will likely be the case with “Season 53” (the fourth season of the show). Beginning Wednesday night, the IFC channel will air new episodes weekly, tapping into the oeuvre of Herzog, Agnès Varda, and other prestigious documentary filmmakers, who will all be spoofed—and yet, still admired.

The ideal Documentary Now! viewer has put in the work before watching the new season. They have seen The Beaches of Agnès, still voice their opinions on My Octopus Teacher’s controversial Oscar win, and can discern the milieu of different documentary styles. They will chuckle at the sight of Cate Blanchett beaming on the cover of a magazine, recalling the miniature salon of The September Issue. They will see Herzog behind the eyes of Alexander Skarsgård.

<div class="inline-image__credit">IFC via AMC</div>

But what fashions Documentary Now! into a more mainstream hit, capable of reaching audiences aplenty, is how accessible its laughs are. Sure, one who has seen My Best Fiend and Burden of Dreams might be able to unlock more of the double-episode season premiere, “Soldier of Illusion.” Anyone who enjoys series like Reboot or The Comeback, however, will still have a laugh at Skarsgård’s character directing episodes of faux sitcom The Bachelor Nanny, in which a hot young man must look after a set of twins. There’s something for everyone.

Cate Blanchett has frequently collaborated with Documentary Now!, and she returns this season, better than ever, as everyone buzzes about her Oscar potential Tár. If you needed any further proof of the actress’ versatility—and if those two Academy Awards sitting in her closet won’t do—look no further than the difference between her bellowing, insidious performance as Lydia Tár compared to her role as a lighthearted salon worker who can’t stop crying in “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport.”

The cast of Documentary Now! never disappoints. This season’s list of featured stars looks like a roster for the next season of Succession: Along with Skarsgård, fan-faves from the HBO show like Harriet Walter and Nicholas Braun make appearances, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Blanchett and Fleabag’s Jamie Demetriou visited the set sometime soon. Big names like John Mulaney, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, and Seth Meyers also litter the writing, directing, and producing credits—their comedic talents are never wasted, even in short, 20-minute episodes.

<div class="inline-image__credit">IFC via AMC</div>

But the early days of Documentary Now, featuring a scrappy Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in every episode, are missed. Though Armisen makes quick visits to the show (and each one is appreciated, as brief as they are), the first season feels like a distant memory. Yes, the show is an anthology, but it feels so different without Armisen and Hader at the helm. Not bad, but different.

Nonetheless, the double-episode premiere captivates, thanks primarily to Skarsgård’s dedication to his batshit role and Braun’s cheeky side character. But the final two episodes of the six-episode season are a real double whammy. “My Monkey Grifter” features a down-on-his-luck documentary filmmaker (the common man, for Documentary Now!) who falls for a scam: In his inbox, he finds a $200,000 grant to make a movie about monkeys and sign language. Alas, he won’t be wired the grant money until the doc is complete, so he needs to front all the dough to the zoo first.

<div class="inline-image__credit">IFC via AMC</div>

He befriends a monkey, somewhat sexually, and learns “sign language.” No, we’re not talking ASL. We’re talking MSL, “monkey sign language,” a way of communicating that only involves words like “prestige documentary filmmaker” and “my wife sucks, she doesn’t believe in my filmmaking, I want her dead.” Duolingo, let’s get cracking on a seven-week program that’ll teach me this language.

This season saves the very best for last, though, with a stunning ode to Agnès Varda’s one-of-a-kind filmmaking. I was wary when I heard the series would be riffing on the late French legend, just a few years after her death, but “Trouver Frisson” playfully relishes in Varda’s lighthearted, meaningful artistry. French actress Liliane Rovère takes the tricky task of starring as Varda to heart, sporting that iconic haircut while exploring different ways to give Varda’s life meaning, particularly through activities that incite goosebumps.

<div class="inline-image__credit">IFC via AMC</div>

It took quite a while—Season 3 aired back in 2019—but thank goodness Documentary Now! has returned. Jumping into documentaries and collaging them into 20-minute incongruencies can’t be easy—especially when you’re messing around with some of the most intelligent, beloved filmmakers of all time—but by doing it with respect for its subjects and audience, Documentary Now! always triumphs.

Documentary Now! premieres Oct. 19 on IFC at 9 p.m. ET, with the first three episodes also premiering on AMC+ on the same day.

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