The Best ‘Documentary Now!’ Episodes, and the Must-Watch Docs That Inspired Them
The Peabody-nominated Documentary Now! brilliantly sends up some of the greatest documentaries in film history, with no less than Helen Mirren as its host. Here are some of the series’ best send-ups—and, for the ultimate film-nerd binge watch, the documentaries that inspired them.
Where to Watch: Netflix
“Sandy Passage” (season 1, episode 1)
The series’ first episode sets the tone for what’s to come, lampooning one of the most famous documentaries of all time, Grey Gardens, to detailed perfection. Series co-creators Fred Armisen and Bill Hader cross gender lines to play Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy, former socialites now living in a squalid mansion. Armisen and Hader lean into the camp factor—Hader, for instance, wears sweatpants as a hat—but, crucially, they take the roles dead seriously. In the end, things take an unexpected turn toward Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project territory.
Parodies: Grey Gardens (Amazon)
“Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee”
(season 1, episodes 6 and 7)
Armisen and Hader play Gene Allen and Clark Honus, two Chicago guys who become the unlikely saviors of ’70s California rock with their band the Blue Jean Committee. At every turn, this episode lovingly recreates the perfect rock doc: aged-looking archival photos, authentic-seeming concert footage, exceptional period styling. (Extra points for the spot-on Chicago accents.) The stellar talking-head cameos include journalist-filmmaker Cameron Crowe; musicians Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, and Haim; and critic Chuck Klosterman. At its heart, the tale of the Blue Jean Committee is a genuinely riveting story that will make you almost forget this is all a joke.
Parodies: History of the Eagles (Amazon)
“The Bunker” (season 2, episode 1)
This send-up of The War Room, written by John Mulaney, goes behind the scenes of a 1992 campaign for Ohio governor. Armisen and Hader make a great ersatz George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, while the episode as a whole offers exceptional ’90s nostalgia. The pitch-perfect homage comes with just the right touches of absurdity, like the operatives’ inability to see what’s wrong with running an ad about their opponent that intones, “This Sunday is Governor Lester’s birthday. Let’s hope it’s his last.” It’s a reminder of a time when campaign strategy was mysterious to most Americans, quaint in an age when every voter fancies themselves a political strategist and every campaign operative is a regular talking head on cable news.
Parodies: The War Room (Amazon)
“Batsh*t Valley” (season 3, episode 1)
In its third season, Documentary Now! started expanding its guest casts because Hader was busy filming his HBO series Barry, and to great effect: In this episode, Oscar nominees Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton take on the Netflix sensation Wild, Wild Country, and do not disappoint as a cult leader and the FBI agent investigating him. Some major plot twists ensue as the cult does battle with the government—and infects a large portion of the local population with pink eye.
Parodies: Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
“My Monkey Grifter” (season 4, episode 5)
It had us at the title, but this episode also delivers. Series co-creator Seth Meyers wrote this story of a documentarian (Jamie Demetriou) who films his yearlong quest to communicate with a monkey named Lulu, skewering the manipulation and narcissism at the center of the Oscar-winning sensation My Octopus Teacher. The twist toward true crime implied in the title—the details of which are truly hilarious—takes it to the next level.
Parodies: My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)