Throughout its run on IFC, Documentary Now! — the sketch show for film nerds — has lovingly spoofed such some of the genre’s most esteemed directors and provided pinpoint-accurate satire for some of the all-time classic docs, from Grey Gardens to Wild Wild Country, as well as homages to lesser-known cineaste favorites.
The show’s as sharp as ever in “Soldier of Illusion,” the two-parter that opens Season 4. As pure entertainment, it adroitly combines a high concept with lowbrow humor, including Alexander Skarsgård in a role that might take you back to his orange mocha frappuccino days. And like so many of the best Documentary Now! episodes, it shines because it’s remarkably ambitious, beginning with the decision to parody (at last!) the dogged determination of director Werner Herzog.
Episode writer John Mulaney (in his eighth installment for the series) boosts the degree of difficulty by choosing not to lampoon one of Herzog’s own celebrated docs like Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Instead, he satirizes a documentary that was made about Herzog while he was shooting another film.
This was Fitzcarraldo, a 1982 drama about a man who decides to open an opera house in the jungle. Herzog decided to shoot it in Peru, hiring a bunch of Indigenous people to lug a 320-ton steamship up a mountain. Halfway through production, his lead got dysentery, so Herzog replaced him with Klaus Kinski, an actor he had pulled a gun on while making a previous film. So basically all director Les Blank had to do was follow Herzog around with a crew and they’d almost be guaranteed to get something that made Hearts of Darkness seem like South Pacific. Blank did much more than that, and the result, Burden of Dreams, has been hailed as a documentary classic.
But how do you make fun of something that grim and intense? Without revealing too much, Mulaney’s brilliant idea involves a Herzog-like director played by Skarsgård directing a Kinski-like hothead played by August Diehl… in a CBS sitcom.
Leave it to a comedy writer to compare making a network show to lugging a 320-ton steamship up a hill. But of course, the comparison works and is brilliantly executed. This is mostly due to Skarsgard’s understated slow burn as the director Rainier, who manages the mounting ridiculousness of making the series by putting his head down and acting as if everything is just fine. Diehl’s raving-lunatic act is essential, too, but a little of that goes a long way.
Along with the Herzog-Kinski saga, “Soldier of Illusion” cheerfully skewers various tropes about 1980s network sitcoms, as well as the process of making them (the role of the studio audience makes for an especially great reveal). This is precisely what one would expect from Mulaney, a font of endless ideas who’s already gone to great lengths to mangle our memories of old public-TV children’s shows. (Fred Armisen, in yet another performance highlighting his matchless skills playing a wide-eyed idiot, is the CBS executive on location overseeing the shooting of the pilot.)
Happily, the rest of the Documentary Now! season reaches similar heights. There’s “My Monkey Grifter,” a solid take on the Oscar-winning Netflix doc My Octopus Teacher, again starring Armisen; “Trouver Fission,” a parody of the 1960s French new wave that you don’t have to be a film buff to enjoy; and a none-too-subtle commentary on the 1996 boxing doc When We Were Kings titled “When We Threw Rocks.” After her triumphant turn parodying Marina Abramović in Season 3, Cate Blanchett returns in “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport,” a mashup of BBC doc Three Salons at the Seaside and The September Issue, which is about the making of Vogue magazine. Blanchett, who had the idea for this parody herself, is indispensable once again, making an obvious play to cinema geeks that’s still funny and relatable.
Once again, Dame Helen Mirren introduces each film and gives the episodes a whiff of fake gravitas. She informs us that we’re watching “Documentary Now! Season 53,” and indeed the opening credits make it seem like the show’s been running forever, much like the two shows it tips its hat to, POV on PBS and Panorama on the UK’s Channel Four.
With TV viewers shifting their habits over to streaming platforms, the future is cloudy for niche cable channels like IFC, one of the few TV outlets on Earth that would ever have taken a chance on Documentary Now! What IFC discovered — as it also did with Portlandia — is that satirizing something both highly specific and kind of obscure can yield incredible results. Documentary Now! has pretty much perfected that formula, and with documentaries more popular than ever, there’s no reason this series can’t go on and on, to at least season 53 and beyond.
“Soldier of Illusion” premieres October 19, airing on IFC and streaming on AMC+. Later episodes of Documentary Now! will stream first on AMC+, airing a week later on IFC.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.