IFC’s series Documentary Now! began as an affectionately parodic tribute to the classics of nonfiction cinema. Its first episode, “Sandy Passage,” was a note-perfect evocation of the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens that took a sudden twist into Blair Witch Project territory, and “Kunuk Uncovered,” its second, sent up the highly staged scenarios of Robert Flaherty’s landmark (if now highly suspect) Nanook of the North. (The episode that followed, a takeoff on Vice-style extreme tourism, was satire of a less affectionate kind, showing little compunction about sending its edgy bro documentarians to their deaths.) But along the way to its third season, which premieres Wednesday night, the series’ humor grew more attenuated, so its episodes started to feel less like extended Saturday Night Live sketches and more like covert conceptual art projects, where the joke, so to speak, is that such meticulously fetishistic re-creations exist in the first place.
If you’re familiar with the source material, which includes movies like Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, an elegiac black-and-white portrait of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, and the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, you may spend a chunk of the third season too slack-jawed to laugh in the first place. Directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono nail the panoply of visual and rhythmic styles so thoroughly that if you didn’t know what they were up to, you might actually buy the series’ longtime conceit: that you’re watching a long-running PBS-style showcase—now in its 52nd season—dedicated to preserving the classics of the form. (Helen Mirren once again plays it deliciously straight as the show’s on-screen host.) It’s like opening a window into an alternate dimension where, instead of falling to his death from a hotel balcony, Baker became heavily involved in Eastern European politics.
Or, say, instead of Company, a Stephen Sondheim–like figure authored a flop musical about the residents of an upscale housing cooperative. “Co-op,” the new season’s second and strongest episode, is the one that’s been making the rounds in film festivals since October, playing to Documentary Now!’s small but intensely dedicated (and, ahem, discerning) fan base. Although it’s currently not available on streaming services and is out of print on DVD, D.A.
Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company has achieved semi-legendary status in the theater community for capturing the high-pressure environment during the recording of Sondheim’s groundbreaking musical. The film was originally going to be the pilot for a regular series on cast recordings, but the project never got as far as a second episode, leaving Pennebaker’s film as an unrestrained, virtually unequaled look at the creative process in action. “Co-Op” pays tribute to the original, with the twist that rather than documenting the creation of an iconic masterwork, it’s catching the last few air bubbles before a show goes down for good.
Shrinking the size of the canvas is a trick Documentary Now! has pulled before, since there’s subtler comedy in failure than there is in success. The second season’s “The Bunker” parodied Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ The War Room, but shifted the scene from Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign to a go-nowhere gubernatorial candidacy. The new season’s “Searching for Mr. Larson” stars Fred Armisen as a self-centered filmmaker trying to track down the reclusive creator of the comic strip The Far Side, a mediocre goal pursued by an even more mediocre man. It’s perhaps the most obviously judgmental episode since the first season’s Vice takedown, but given the plague of documentaries whose creators have convinced themselves that their struggle to find a story is more interesting than the story itself, the target is deserving enough to make the shots feel earned.
“Searching” also marks the season’s only contribution from Bill Hader, and he’s only a co-writer. Hader has been a mainstay of the series since its beginning, and his performances in episodes like “The Bunker” and the second season’s “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” have been one of its not-so-secret weapons, but he was off working on the second season of Barry. He is sorely missed. Armisen is a deft caricaturist, but Hader often imported a note of genuine pathos alongside the sendup. The new season makes up for his absence with a succession of high-profile guest stars—Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton in the opening “Batsh*t Valley,” Richard Kind and Renée Elise Goldsberry in “Co-op,” Michael C. Hall in the professional bowling–centric “Any Given Saturday Afternoon”—but they don’t quite nail the series’ fiendishly tricky tone, its mixture of homage and absurdist autocritique.
In “Waiting for the Artist,” though, Cate Blanchett pulls off something even trickier. The season’s third episode riffs on the Marina Abramovic documentary The Artist Is Present, with Blanchett as Izabella Barta, a performance artist preparing for a midcareer retrospective and wondering whether she still has ideas potent enough to forge ahead after that. Art-world satire is low-hanging fruit (just ask Velvet Buzzsaw), and the gusto with which Blanchett throws herself into a series of over-the-top Abramovic pisstakes doesn’t lessen the sense that you’re watching the show nail an easy target. But it emerges before long that Izabella is baring something in her work, specifically her relationship with her leech of a boyfriend—and then ex-boyfriend—Dimo (Armisen). While she literally puts herself into her work, inviting spectators to abuse her body while she wears a bucket on her head, he drops a toy car into a glass of water and calls it art—and others buy into it. In one of Izabella’s pieces, Dimo eats at a table while she struggles to reach it, bound to a wall by a piece of elastic that allows her to nearly get there every time before she’s pulled inexorably backward. There’s a genuine, and familiar, tragedy underneath Blanchett’s Slavic accent, and she doesn’t play the part for laughs. There’s humor in the episode, but it’s the humor of recognition, not release. Even if it’s fiction, “Waiting for the Artist” still feels like it’s documenting something real.