A lot of reviews have called this mockumentary anthology series from the minds of Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers “niche,” insisting that it will always only exist for a small, off-beat audience. I think they’re wrong. A huge section of today’s television audience is finding deep meaning and value in material that can walk that post-modernist line between cynical and genuine, especially when it’s done as effortlessly as in both seasons of IFC’s Documentary Now! The tone and subject matter brought to life through Armisen, Hader and others are, at times, some of the most honest reflections of the millennial relationship between humor and humanity on television.
With season two freshly dropped onto Netflix’s streaming shelf, here are the top five reasons you absolutely need to watch this masterpiece of modern television.
1. The Star-Studded Cast
Documentary Now! is packed to the brim with huge stars. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, both beloved comedians, grace the screen repeatedly with their starring presence, but they aren’t alone. Alongside star a laundry list of famous actors and musicians including Kenny Loggins, Cameron Crowe, Daryl Hall, Jack Black, Peter Fonda, Michael McDonald, Mia Farrow and of course the lovely Helen Mirren, plus so many others. That’s not even including all the other fellow Saturday Night Live, current and former, cast members.
2. The Critical Acclaim
The LA Times called Documentary Now! “Ridiculously wonderful.” The New York Times wrote that it was a “Charming, oddball exercise in cultural excavation.” RogerEbert.com said, “Documentary Now! is so good that it should spark more interest in the very art form it satirizes but also clearly loves.” And the show has a whopping 98 percent viewer rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
3. The Makeup And Costume Design
Each mockumentary episode is its own miniature period piece, and the design of the costumes, as well as the makeup on Armisen and Hader, is phenomenal. Having amazing character actors goes a long way, but finishing off the look the right way can be equally important in selling the idea of an imaginary person’s struggles and accomplishments. The cinematography overall is incredibly in this series, matching the source material eerily well on occasion, but it’s the way you can see Armisen and Hader, over and over again, episode to episode, and immediately see them as new characters every single time. Without a thought, they are suddenly transformed into elderly women, Hispanic chefs, and washed-up American rock stars.
4. The Music
Armisen and Hader actually put on an entire real concert, attended by a real audience made of non-actors, as part of the filming of the second season’s episode “Test Pattern,” based on the real-life Talking Heads concert documentary. The episode highlights the musical skills these comedy creators have. Highly talented, the music Hader and Armisen weave into the show is fantastic.
5. The Humble Humanity
Not every episode offers up a moralized message. There is no forcing of happy endings down cynical viewers’ throats. This willingness to abandon the modernist need for satisfying endings and relatable character development actually seems to do a whole lot for the feeling of genuine honesty found in the episodes that do leave the audience with a moral reverie. From irreverent to irrevocably, emotionally raw, the writers manage to bring a particular flavor of humanity to otherwise intangibly unusual characters. Both seasons are full of laughs, but be ready with the tissues for each season’s finale.
If you haven’t yet, it’s time to watch Documentary Now! Catch both seasons streaming on Netflix.