If you ask Seth Meyers to give you an elevator pitch for Documentary Now!, two things become readily apparent. One is that, as one of the show’s creators and primary writers, Meyers has obviously thought about this question a lot, teasing out the ways the series draws upon a unique hybrid of sketch comedy, real documentaries, and a profound dedication to mimicry to make something shockingly human out of its spoofs of non-fiction film. The second is that, three seasons in, he still isn’t entirely sure what it is that he and his fellow faux-documentarians have actually made. “It’s basically loving parodies of existing documentaries,” Meyers offers when asked to sum the show up in a single sentence. But the backtrack comes quickly, tacking extra words onto the definition as it goes: “Somehow, even as I say that, parody doesn’t quite sound right,” he muses. “It’s the closest word I have in my vocabulary, though.” Later in the conversation he’ll cycle through and discard “recreation” and “satire,” too, before eventually exhorting, “C’mon, we can do this! What’s the word?!”
Meyers’ collaborators, Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas—fellow Saturday Night Live alums who’ve directed every episode of the IFC series, and who the Late Night host frequently describes as the program’s institutional soul—are more solid in their explanation: “It’s a loving homage to documentaries. To specific documentaries, to the idea of documentary film-making,” Buono offers up, speaking in the tone of someone who’s had to quickly and clearly describe the series, more than once, to its recent influx of big-name guest stars. “It’s not a parody. It’s not sketch comedy. We’re not making fun of anybody,” he adds, emphasizing a sweetness that’s grown in the show from its early days of violent Grey Gardens riffs and disposable VICE dweebs. “We’re not here to laugh at anybody.”
Meanwhile, ask anyone who’s watched the show’s first two seasons—or rather its 50th and 51st, as Dame Helen Mirren would be quick to remind us—and you might get a simpler (and less accurate, in multiple senses) answer: “That fake documentary show where Fred Armisen and Bill Hader play all the leading roles.”
For its first two years on the air, Documentary Now! was, essentially, The Fred And Bill Show; while the occasional episode might feature only one or the other member of the pair, the sketch comedy veterans were prominent throughout, serving as comforting, repetitive presences for a series switching from Gothic horror, to heartwarming family drama, to a full-blown concert film with every passing week. In the process, Armisen and Hader have acted as its two-man repertory company, playing everything from soulless political fixers to good-natured Al Capone imitators, with stops for sweetly dopey chicken chefs (Armisen), a cadaverous Robert Evans send-up (Hader), and vicious murderers (both of them, more than once) along the way.
Which is part of what makes Documentary Now!’s third season—premiering tonight with the cult pastiche “Batsh*t Valley”—so radical. It might take you a minute to notice it, what with famous faces like Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton flooding the screen, but the show’s new reality will eventually settle in: No Fred, and no Bill, to be seen. And while persistent viewers of the season will eventually get to a handful of Armisen-fronted episodes—three in total, out of the six fake docs on display—recent Emmy-winner Hader never shows up for the show’s third season at all.
Hader’s absence is both understandable and expected, of course; Barry is a huge hit over in HBO Land right now, and Doc Now! has always been something of a side hustle or labor of love for pretty much everybody involved, from late-night host Meyers, to the endlessly prolific Armisen, to John Mulaney, who, when not penning multiple episodes per season, moonlights as one of the biggest stand-up comics on the planet. There’s a reason the show hasn’t run new episodes in more than two years, and it’s not because the people involved haven’t wanted to get it on the air.
“When we first conceived of the show, we always thought that might be the future of it,” Meyers notes regarding the decision to switch out Hader and (to a lesser extent) Armisen for a rotating crew of famous guest stars for this year’s slate of shows. Discussing the inevitability of the change, Meyers, Thomas, and Buono all bemoan the loss of Hader, a natural chameleon who can go from lovable to lizard-man at a moment’s notice. Although the series’ warmest moments have often come from “Fred” episodes—all three cite season one’s “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” and season two’s “Juan Likes Chicken And Rice” as personal favorites, and the closest the series has ever come to capturing their ideal version of Documentary Now!’s humanistic vibe—there’s a feral quality to Hader that’s always stopped the show from tilting over into outright sentimentality, whether coolly vamping his way through “Mr. Runner Up,” or going completely unhinged in the Spalding Gray riff “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything.”
Watching the show’s third season, it’s not hard to see spaces where a Hader performance might “fit”; it’d be easy to imagine him slipping into the oversized sunglasses Necar Zadegan rocks as a malevolent cult spokesperson in “Batsh*t Valley,” or taking on Michael C. Hall’s dead-eyed bowling prodigy in “Any Given Saturday Afternoon.” But it’d also be a mistake to view these new outings as a series of recycled second-season episodes with some Wite-Out casually splashed on their casting pages. Stripped of one of the core components of its identity, Documentary Now! also loses one of those aspects that defined it, for good or ill; although they’re careful not to speak in anything less than glowing terms about their friends and colleagues, Buono and Thomas are obviously gleeful about moving away from a “constraint” that put limits on the kinds of stories the series could tell. Or, in Buono’s words: “When we realized we couldn’t have Bill, it became an interesting problem to say, ‘So we can’t have every episode be about two white guys in a two-hander.’”
Sometimes that evolution is as simple as applying the show’s considerable talents to non-Hader or Armisen obsessions, like Mulaney’s technically ridiculous Sondheim homage “Co-Op,” a take on D.A. Pennebaker’s Company: Original Cast Recording. A celebration of Doc Now!’s endless dedication to the flawless execution of a relentlessly goofy idea, the episode comes complete with guest performances from Broadway stars Renée Elise Goldsberry, Alex Brightman, and Richard Kind, a breakout blast from A.P. Bio’s Paula Pell, and an original score of idiotically hummable songs, at least one of which is destined to be the series’ showstopper of the season. It’s a nigh-perfect cataloguing of Mulaney’s particular fixations—in much the same way that “Gentle & Soft: The Story Of The Blue Jean Committee” captured Armisen and Hader’s soft-rock solipsism—and it thrives in part because there’s no familiar face peeking out to break the illusion of its note-perfect pastiche.
Talking to the show’s creative team, a frequent refrain emerges: Documentary Now! is aggressively not sketch comedy. When Meyers expresses his lingering discomfort at the horror-movie ending of the show’s first episode, “Sandy Passage,” he describes it as “very much a sketch comedy idea.” Buono (who, with Thomas, worked on SNL’s filmed video side) makes it clear that he sees the series’ dedication to emotional grounding and storytelling as the things that differentiate it from “a two-to-three minute sketch.” Really, though, the show’s most SNL aspect has always been its reliance on Armisen and Hader. That’s mostly been to the series’ strengths, allowing it to tap into the work of two of the most accomplished comic actors on the planet as they breathe inner life into a series of ridiculous, self-involved, frequently deranged men. But no matter how good Armisen and Hader are at disappearing into parts, there’s still a predictability that eventually seeps in the dozenth or so time you see them show up in a talking head. And there are parts—and stories—that they’re simply not equipped to play.
Take the season’s biggest swing in terms of guest star casting: Two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, playing a variant of performance artist Marina Abramović in “Waiting For The Artist.” Armisen and Hader have both demonstrated that they can play women at a level that defies easy labels like “parody,” but it’d still be hard to swallow a tale of female artistic empowerment like this—especially from a creative team so overwhelmingly white and male—without a woman of commanding skill in the leading role. And because we haven’t seen Blanchett play any other characters on the show, it short-circuits the little voice in the back of your head that whispers “That’s such a Hader part” every time he shows up on the screen. Instead, she simply is Abramović—or rather, Izabella Barta, creator of such modern-art masterpieces as the blatantly self-harming “Bucket” series. (It doesn’t hurt that Blanchett is unsurprisingly gifted at feeding the silliness of her characters’ artistic ideas without ever sacrificing her dignity and humanity in the process.) Buono and Thomas frequently discuss pulling their writers back from the urge to make the show a cavalcade of jokes, ruining the reality of its carefully crafted universes. Casting an actress of Blanchett’s skill in the part achieves a similar effect: By forcibly giving up the comfort of Hader’s comic skills, the show’s third season of fake documentaries feels “realer” than anything that’s come before.
“The ones I’m happiest with are the ones where you kind of forget it’s based on something, and care about these characters,” Meyers says when asked about his favorite episodes of the series. “The best episodes are one where you’re coming into an unknown landscape,” Thomas notes, echoing the sentiment in a separate interview. In losing one of its two most recognizable faces—and rationing the other to just a handful of parts—Documentary Now! is formally heading out into uncharted territory. All parties concerned are clear that, if free time somehow became infinite, they’d welcome the show’s original stars back with welcome arms—although they’d likely continue to integrate them with the wider roster of talent now at their disposal. For now, though, the training wheels are off: Documentary Now! might not be easy to define, but whatever it is, it’s coming into its own—and when you’re talking about a show that was already one of the best and most interesting series on TV, that’s something worth celebrating, regardless of what’s been lost.