One of the under-praised benefits of the Peak TV era has been the recent explosion in quality documentaries. The rise of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu has brought on more venues looking to snap up new and existing docs and, in the case of Making a Murderer, produce their own. With gems like O.J.: Made in America frequently permeating the zeitgeist, it seems that Documentary Now! appeared at just the right time.
Created by the SNL all-star trifecta of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers–with an assist from fellow alum John Mulaney–Documentary Now! is a weekly mockumentary series on IFC. Over the course of last year’s seven episodes, it has managed to single-handedly reinvigorate a satirical genre that’s lost its mojo in recent years. Despite highlights like Best In Show, Brass Eye, and Borat, the 2000s bore a glut of shows and films bearing the fake-doc format. [Insert a Jim from The Office exhausted look to camera here.] Documentary Now!’s innovation is that, instead of parodying the subject matter itself, this show targets specific documentaries. The resulting jokes are recontextualized and multilayered.
In the world of the series, a show called Documentary Now! has been on the air for 51 seasons. Host Helen Mirren, played by the Oscar winner herself, introduces each week’s entry in a straightforward manner, and what follows might be a horror movie riff on Grey Gardens, or an incendiary send-up of Vice’s too-hip-to-survive drug-drenched escapades–both of which were featured last season. Now that the show is returning to IFC tonight, here is Co.Create‘s guide to all the targets in the second season of Documentary Now! (Maybe next time, Making a Murderer!)
The Source Documentary: The War Room
The Episode It Inspired: The Bunker
In the premiere episode, the classic political doc gets a local focus remix. The D.A. Pennebaker-directed original followed strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos on the campaign trail for Bill Clinton in 1992. The Bunker shifts the action to a much lower stakes election, the gubernatorial election in Ohio, with Armisen playing the Stephanopoulos role (Alvin Panagoulious) and Hader reviving his Carville impression from SNL (although here the character is called Teddy Redbones).
The Source Documentary: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The Episode It Inspired: Juan Likes Rice & Chicken
Back in 2011, Jiro Dreams of Sushi captured the dedication that went into operating one of the world’s top sushi restaurants, along with the internal family tension that goes along with maintaining it. The Documentary Now! version moves the action south of the border, and takes some funny shots at foodie culture. This episode offers one of the show’s premier pleasures: a counterbalance of sweetness with silliness that makes viewers actually care about these characters.
The Source Documentary: Swimming to Cambodia
The Episode It Inspired: Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything
The first of two Jonathan Demme films parodied this season, Swimming to Cambodia is the cinematic version of a monologue Spalding Gray used to perform in New York City in the ’80s. In it, the actor and writer discusses his time spent in Southeast Asia, among other more metaphysical pursuits. Fred Armisen recreates the spare style of Gray’s stage show, but turns it into an exegesis on real estate and his troubled marriage.
The Source Documentary: Stop Making Sense
The Episode It Inspired: Final Transmission
One of the standout episodes on the first season of Documentary Now! was the two-part musical episode, Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee. It was a take off of the Eagles that found sometime musician Armisen in his comfort zone. (The songs were actually pretty great.) Considering that this episode is a take off of the seminal Talking Heads film, often cited as the greatest musical documentary ever, expect big things.
The Source Documentary: Salesman
The Episode It Inspired: Globesmen
The Maysles brothers aimed for a nonfiction feature film with Salesman, hoping to do for movies what Truman Capote did for literature with In Cold Blood. They may not have quite achieved that lofty goal, but they did make a landmark film following four Bible salesmen traveling across New England and southeast Florida on the way to a big meeting in Chicago. (Think: the sadder scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross.) As you can probably infer from the title, in the new version Hader and Armisen are selling globes instead of Bibles.
The Source Documentary: The Kid Stays in the Picture
The Episode It Inspired: Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid
Finally, the second season ends with another two-parter. This one tackles the 2002 film version of megaproducer and broken icon Robert Evans’s famous memoir. Before the film came out, the audiobook was a beloved cult item. Nobody could resist cackling along with Evans’s hilariously self-aggrandizing tone. Perhaps when Bill Hader takes a stab at the role, he’ll rival that other parodic interpretation of Evans: Bob Odenkirk on Mr. Show.