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The best ‘Documentary Now!’ episodes

With the upcoming return of the hilarious 'Documentary Now' on IFC, these are the 10 best episodes so far in the series run.

Image via IMDb

Originally on IFC, the hilarious comedy series Documentary Now is still a fan-favorite, after their fourth season was released this past October, on AMC+. From the beginning of each episode, the legendary Helen Mirren appears as herself to set up viewers to watch a “classic” documentary, albeit a fake story. Since its debut in 2015, comedy masters Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas, all at one time or another affiliated with Saturday Night Live, bring viewers periodical documentary episodes.

Each one spoofs well-known real projects like History of the Eagles or The Kid Stays in the Picture, for ridiculous tales within supposedly true stories. And it’s delivered so well that if you didn’t already know the comedic minds behind the show, it might take you a little while to realize it’s all a big joke.

Listed below, in no particular order, are 12 of the best episodes thus far of Documentary Now.

Sandy Passage

This was the first episode in the entire television series and the one that got things rolling for the rest of the hilarious features. This one spoofed a 1970s American documentary titled Grey Gardens, about two women, a mother-daughter pair reclusively living in poverty.

Co-writers Armisen and Hader played the two mysterious women, without much altering of their naturally masculine features, adding to the satire effect. This is a common casting tactic that many men in sketch comedy use that typically results in plenty of laughs, as is the case throughout the run of this series. The episode also co-starred Rob Benedict, of Felicity and Supernatural fame, and Star Trek character actor Randy Oglesby in small supporting roles.

Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, Parts 1 & 2

A two-part episode to close out the first season featured a story about the journey to the top and fall to the bottom of the 1970s soft rock band, The Blue Jean Committee. This one was inspired by the real-life legendary rock band, The Eagles, and their own 2013 documentary, History of the Eagles.

The band depicted in this spoof actually featured in a 2011 Saturday Night Live skit, with the Documentary Now version having Armisen once again showing off his musical comedy talents alongside Hader, as usual. This episode also featured Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, Haim, Michael McDonald, Cameron Crowe, and Chuck Klosterman as themselves in cameo roles.

Batsh*t Valley, Parts 1 & 2

To open the third season in 2019, another two-part episode focused on a cult’s negative effect on a small town in rural Oregon. This mockumentary was based on two separate films, Wild Wild Country and The Source Family, pieces that were nowhere near the humorous tone audiences get from Documentary Now.

Owen Wilson was cast as Father Ra-Shawbard, the leader of the aforementioned cult, and Michael Keaton as an FBI agent who’s looking to get to the bottom of the situation at hand. Veteran journalist Connie Chung also makes a cameo appearance as herself.

Waiting for the Artist

Also in season three, Waiting for the Artist tells the tale of a world-renowned performance artist reflecting on her lengthy career and how it intertwined with a long-lost relationship with someone who was her partner both in the profession and in love. Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett plays Hungarian artist Izabella Barta, the performer in question.

Blanchett’s performance in this episode is so bizarre, far from the efforts that won her Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs, but it’s still more than masterful enough to show viewers she’s abundant in silliness. The real-life street artist Thierry Guetta, known as “Mr. Brainwash,” appears as himself in the episode.

The Bunker

Taking a political tone, this pick from the second season was inspired by the real documentary The War Room, a chronicle of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1992 road to the White House. However, this episode didn’t go as far as Washington, D.C., but was located in and around the state of Ohio as the campaign staff of 1992 gubernatorial candidate Ben Herndon was hilariously featured in this story.

Right off the bat, the audience is thrown right into a scene between the political operatives as they discuss the details of a very questionable campaign ad that’s yet to air on television. Veteran character actor Van Epperson portrayed the political hopeful, alongside award-winning comedian and actor Wayne Federman, and the usual efforts from Armisen and Hader.

Final Transmission

Another music-centric mockumentary entitled Final Transmission was presented during the show’s second season. The new-wave eighties band Test Pattern was chronicled as the group of musicians prepared for their farewell concert. This episode was mostly based on the real documentary Stop Making Sense, which focused on the popular eighties band Talking Heads.

So much of this episode’s style would make even the most casual pop music fan think that the story was about the actual Talking Heads. There was a small additional portion of the mockumentary that took some inspiration from a separate film, Big Time, a 1988 musical film that featured singer Tom Waits. Armisen and Hader starred along with fellow SNL alumna Maya Rudolph. Additionally, Senon Williams, Hal Willner, and Jon Wurster used their real-life musical talents in supporting roles.

The Eye Doesn’t Lie

A controversial 1976 murder and its subsequent criminal trial were featured in this episode from the show’s first season. The source content was taken from the real documentary The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 film about the conviction of a man who was wrongfully accused of murdering a Texas police officer.

Like the real project, this one is also set in Texas and uses re-enactments to help explain the chain of events. But, since it’s likely impossible to make fun of the slaying of a police officer, the victim depicted here was of all things, a sign spinner working outside of a local car wash business. Armisen played the role of the wrongly accused suspect, Hader played an additional suspect, and character actor Van Epperson made another appearance, this time as one of the homicide detectives on the case.

DRONEZ: The Hunt for ‘El Chingon’

This pick was loosely inspired by the extensive collection of original documentaries produced by VICE News. The style and tone of this one primarily took from the common VICE-style journalism focused on the underground drug trade and the kingpins who control it. Of course, “El Chingon” isn’t a real person, and the media outlet called “DRONEZ,” is a spoof in itself, but this piece was put together well enough to appear pretty factual.

In a crazy guest-starring role, Jack Black played the role of DRONEZ’s founder, making things even more hilarious. Also, musician Ty Dolla $ign makes a cameo appearance as himself, and Steven Michael Quezada, of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, portrayed the drug lord in question.

A Town, a Gangster, a Festival

Screengrab via YouTube

Believe it or not, the historically famous and notorious gangster Al Capone is honored during an annual festival – in Árborg, Iceland, of all places. At least, that’s what viewers are led to believe in this pick from season one. This episode is unique, though, in that it’s actually not based on any previous real-life documentary, making this story an original production.

The simple fact such an unlikely place on Earth holds a consistently passionate celebration in honor of an unlikely subject is sure to bring a lot of laughs here. The scenes that depict a classroom of young kids learning about such a “legend” are just as humorously wild as the festival’s Capone look-alike contest. Another SNL veteran, Aidy Bryant, makes a quick guest appearance as a descendent of Capone’s to also take part in the festivities.

Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid, Parts 1 & 2

Screengrab via YouTube

This pick was a parody of the 1994 Robert Evans autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, and its later film adaptation of the same name. This two-part episode that closed up the second season featured Hader as Hollywood acting legend Jerry Wallach, who allows filmmakers to shoot his visual memoirs, in a manner of speaking.

Wallach also reflects on several decades of his movies that he hopes will win him an elusive Academy Award. To bring more realism to the spoof, established actors Peter Bogdanovich, Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow, Peter Fonda, and Anne Hathaway all make guest cameo appearances as themselves.

How They Threw Rocks

From the series’ fourth and most recent season is this sports mockumentary. Like another entry on this list, this episode brings the laughs from abroad. One of Wales’ most beloved sports, Craig Maes, or “Field Rock”, a painful play on dodgeball is featured in this crazy chronicle from 1974.

Written by SNL alum, current late-night host, and of course close friend of Armisen and Hader, Seth Meyers, this pick was inspired by the real-life sports epic, When We Were Kings. And popular Welsh icons, Jonathan Pryce, John Rhys-Davies, Tom Jones, and Trystan Gravelle all make humorous appearances all for the pride of their homeland.

Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport

This feature from the fourth season drew inspiration from two documentaries, Three Salons at Seaside and The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s film that gained considerable fame thanks to the classic fashion film, The Devil Wears Prada. But instead of style that’s high-fashion for New York City, this episode’s limits are suited more for the small-town confines of fictional “Bagglyport”, England.

Seth Meyers provided writing duties again here and Cate Blanchett made another appearance as one of the depicted stylists, looking nowhere near her avant-garde role in season three’s Waiting for the Artist. She’s also joined by legendary British actress Harriet Walter, as the other half of the hilarious hairdressers.

Hassan Green
About the author

Hassan Green

Hassan is a proud dad, a habitual night owl, and a passionate fan of many sports, James Bond films, visiting Canada (well, Toronto to be exact), the power of humor, and great food. He often believes that coffee can and will save the world. Hassan tries to be charitable with some of his free time and energy to his local community. In the meantime, he's also attempting to get his one-man podcast back off the ground.