If you’re a fan of documentaries such as Grey Gardens, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Stop Making Sense and you love to laugh, you really should be watching Documentary Now!, which premiered on IFC in 2015 and returns for its fourth season this month. Why? Each episode is a loving parody of a famous documentary, and it’s produced by a team of Saturday Night Live alums — Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen (55) and producer-director Rhys Thomas — who clearly have a deep reverence and affection for the genre. Here, everything you need to know about the six-time Emmy-nominated comedy series before it returns on IFC and streams on AMC+ on Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. ET.
1. There’s something for every breed of documentary fan
Over the course of its first 21 episodes, the series paid homage to documentaries about politics (The War Room), fine-dining (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), cults (Wild Wild Country), sports (A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), quirky characters (Grey Gardens), crime (The Thin Blue Line) and more. Some of the inspirations can be quite obscure, but in this season, the creators are turning to one of the buzziest documentaries in recent memory, Netflix’s Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher. In the absurdist parody version, “My Monkey Grifter,” British comedian Jamie Demetriou plays a fictional filmmaker who forms an intense relationship with a rhesus macaque who lives at a zoo — and who may be a con artist. “We make a lot of these about very old documentaries that maybe a few people have seen,” Meyers told Entertainment Weekly about tackling the popular film. “So we try at least once a season to do something that’s a little more current.”
2. You can expect many appearances by Saturday Night Live cast members
Lorne Michaels, 77, is an executive producer, and the quartet of creators can all trace their roots to the NBC late-night juggernaut. Unsurprisingly, they’ve filled episodes with former cast members and writers, including Maya Rudolph (50), Aidy Bryant, Mike O’Brien, Tim Robinson, Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan.
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3. The series boasts a very celebrated fake host
Documentary Now! takes the form of a fake long-running news magazine that has supposedly been around for more than 50 years, and each episode is introduced by one of the finest actresses of all time, the Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning legend Helen Mirren, 77. Though the premises and characters presented in each spoof doc can be downright giggle-inducing, Mirren has to maintain a level of gravitas to sell the concept. As she told Variety, “You just have to put to one side that this is anything to do with comedy — this is nothing to do with comedy. This is very, very serious, and I have to think that I’m presenting an absolutely, profoundly serious documentary and treat it with the sort of respect and seriousness that I would if that was what I was presenting.”
4. But she’s far from the only A-lister to appear on the series
Chalk it up to the power of Armisen, Hader and Meyers: They have some very famous friends! A-listers who have made appearances include Faye Dunaway (81), Mia Farrow (77), Anne Hathaway and the late Peter Fonda, all of whom appeared in an episode that spoofed The Kid Stays in the Picture. Cate Blanchett, 53, leaned into the zaniness as a Marina Abramović–inspired performance artist named Izabella Barta in a Season 3 episode; the two-time Oscar winner is set to return this season in “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport,” an homage to fashion documentaries such as Three Salons at the Seaside and The September Issue. Elsewhere, keep your eyes peeled for Owen Wilson, 53, as a cult leader in the send-up of Wild Wild Country (and Michael Keaton, 71, as the FBI agent investigating him), plus Natasha Lyonne, Michael C. Hall (51) and Connie Chung (76).
5. There are some surprisingly excellent musical moments
Each season has included a musical episode that, while being hilarious, also contains some legitimately killer tunes. In Season 1, it was “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, Parts 1 & 2,” which takes its inspiration from 2013’s History of the Eagles and follows the rise and fall of a soft rock band; Daryl Hall (76), Kenny Loggins (74) and Michael McDonald (70) all had cameos. Next up, the producers took on the iconic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense for the episode “Final Transmission,” in which Maya Rudolph played a member of the fake new wave band Test Pattern. And for the third season, the show spoofed D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company, which followed the marathon recording session of the Stephen Sondheim musical’s cast album. In this version, the musical is called Co-Op, and it’s about New Yorkers living in a housing cooperative. Emmy-winning SNL writer and Girls5Eva star Paula Pell, 59, takes on the Elaine Stritch role, while the rest of the cast includes John Mulaney, Taran Killam, Richard Kind (65) and Broadway stars Renée Elise Goldsberry (51) and Alex Brightman. Just how believable is the music? The song “Holiday Party (I Did A Little Cocaine Tonight)” earned a 2019 Emmy nomination for outstanding original music and lyrics.
6. The productions are impressively globe-trotting
To make the fake documentaries look and feel real, crews shot episodes around the world, from Iceland to Hungary to Mexico. For a surprisingly lovely episode called “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken,” a gentle ode to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the crew filmed in Colombia with a cast of relative unknowns, and the episode is almost entirely in Spanish.
7. And the cinematography perfectly captures the period
Film nerds will get a kick out of just how much the episodes look like they were shot in a different era. That’s a bit of high-tech movie magic: As cinematographer-director Alex Buono told Vulture, the crews shoot exclusively on digital, but they consult a cinematographer named Suny Behar, who developed a system called LiveGrain that allows them to adjust the graininess and the texture of the “film” based on the period in which the episode is set.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.