Returning this year for its fourth season is Bill Hader, Rhys Thomas, Seth Meyers, and Fred Armisen’s parody passion project, Documentary Now!, an anthology series that takes for its target the rich cinematic history of documentary. Complete with introductions from Helen Mirren and outstanding production values, the series teasingly positions its documentaries as authentic, despite their star-studded casts and nonsensical plots.
Documentary Now! has always been an effective and genuinely delightful comedy for cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike, with reference points ranging as from Grey Gardens and Nanook of the North to more recent, commercial fare like Wild Wild Country and any number of VICE productions. In past seasons, Armisen’s chameleonic accent skills and musical talent have been married with Hader’s own particular comedic chops, as well as his encyclopedic cinematic knowledge, to truly wonderful effect. But despite being parodic, Documentary Now! has always come from what is clearly a place of sincere admiration for the medium, and even though Hader’s absence this season is deeply felt, his loving attention to detail remains. The previewed episodes parody Werner Herzog’s Burden of Dreams and Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s My Octopus Teacher, drawing so expertly on the stark landscapes of the former and the mawkish, lingering camerawork of the latter that their premiering at a film festival feels entirely appropriate. Now, as ever, Documentary Now! remains a devoted tribute to its own art form, and its cinematic flourishes remain as impressive as they’ve ever been.
If there is any critique to be made of these new episodes, it’s that perhaps that love is too blind. The show never seems to venture beyond gentle mockery of either of its subjects, even with all the easy targets that My Octopus Teacher paints on its own back. In a departure from its earlier seasons, season 4 of Documentary Now! seems content with pulling up short of its usual incisiveness and satirical edge; there’s not a hint of mean-spiritedness in these episodes, and the show suffers for it, with the parody left feeling somewhat empty without any real reflections on the filmmaking choices being so painstakingly recreated. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the team behind Documentary Now! are still clearly in awe of the genre, even in its weaker iterations, but even though these imitations are reliably funny and often inventive, these new episodes have lowered the show’s ceiling, kneecapped by their wholehearted love of their source material.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 5.