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Helen Mirren: Good evening. I'm Helen Mirren. And you're watching Documentary Now!. For the past 50 years, Documentary Now! has presented audiences with the world's most thought-provoking cinema. This season, to celebrate our golden anniversary, we take a look back at films that helped shape, change and innovate the world of documentary.
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IFC Mockumentary Genre Anthology series, which debuted in 2015, created by Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, starring the latter two. Each episode is presented as part of an anniversary special of a real documentary show, presented by Helen Mirren, and parodies a famous documentary or style thereof.

With Armisen (Forever) and Hader (Barry) busy working on other shows, season 3, which began on February 20, 2019, saw a slight change in approach. They scaled back their on-camera appearances, while Special Guests began taking prominent roles in each episode.

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     General 

  • Affectionate Parody: The characters in the episodes are often scathing satires, but the original documentaries themselves are treated reverently by the parodies.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Do D.A. Pennebaker (director of Don't Look Back, a clip of which appears in the show open) and R.C. Baumgartner (the director of the Pennebaker parodies The Bunker and Original Cast Album: Co-op) both exist in this world? Or is Baumgartner the director of Don't Look Back in the Documentary Now!-verse?
  • The Comically Serious: The whole point of the show. The documentaries are all done completely deadpan and treated as important touchstones of filmmaking, while depicting ridiculous situations and characters.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The two Maysles Brothers parodies are both credited to the Fein brothers. The Feins are also mentioned in a Variety headline in Mr. Runner Up.
    • In Season Two, the two Jonathan Demme parodies are credited to Harrison Renzi.
    • The two D.A. Pennebaker parodies are credited to R.C. Baumgartner.
  • Evolving Credits: In the second season Salesman is replaced in the opening credits montage with the Up series, possibly because that season has an episode that specifically parodies it.
  • Excited Show Title!: Though the exclamation point is rendered by Helen Mirren in an authoritative tone (rather than loud or excited) when she says it.
  • Musical Pastiche: The documentaries based on those of The Eagles and Talking Heads includes several songs written in the bands' styles. The songs from the musical Co-op give similar treatment to Stephen Sondheim's work, though they lean more toward Stylistic Suck.
  • Retraux: The documentaries all look like actual films from the eras they depict, meticulously copying the filmmaking technology, fashions and interior decorations of the originals.
  • Shout-Out: The opening features clips from several groundbreaking documentaries, like Man with a Movie Camera, Don't Look Back, Roger & Me and Man on Wire.
  • Shown Their Work: Not just in replicating the styles of the documentaries being parodied, but in tracking down the actual lenses and camera models that the originals used.
  • You All Look Familiar: Not just Armisen and Hader, but several of the supporting actors pop up more than once. Tim Robinson, after appearing as young Barnabas Scott in Kunuk Uncovered, plays one of the lead roles in Any Given Saturday Afternoon.
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Season 1

     Episode 1: Sandy Passage 

An in-depth look at the daily lives of two aging socialites and their crumbling estate. This mother (Armisen) and daughter (Hader) live in extreme squalor, but the documentarians find more than just dirt and clutter on the property.

A parody of Grey Gardens.

  • Crazy Cat Lady: The place is almost overwhelmed by cats. And raccons. And possums.
  • Floorboard Failure:
    Big Vivvy: What happened?
    Little Vivvy: I fell through the floor again!
    Big Vivvy: It's because you stomped!
    Little Vivvy: I don't stomp!
    Big Vivvy: I'm always telling you! You got floor all over my lima beans!
  • Found Footage: The film was found following the estate sale.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Though they live in absolute squalor, Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy carry themselves like gilded age aristocrats.
  • Mood Whiplash: Turns out that Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy killed Anthony, the delivery boy, and were keeping Barry captive, and that was the documentarists were really trying to find out after all before their "disappearance".

     Episode 2: Kunuk Uncovered 

This documentary tells the story of the production of Kunuk the Hunter, a film starring an eskimo named Pipilok (Armisen) and directed by Prima Donna Director William H. Sebastian (John Slattery). Features talking head interviews by Sebastian's cameraman Barnabas Scott (Hader) and others, exposing what really happened during filming.

Parodies both Nanook of the North and Kabloonak, a dramatic film about Nanook's controversies.

  • Been There, Shaped History: After taking over production, Pipilok pioneers several revolutionary filmmaking concepts like tracking shots, POV shots, and audio dialogue.
    • Even before that he's shown as having invented the craft services table.
  • Documentary of Lies: Kunuk the Hunter is one In-In-Universe, complete with Manipulative Editing.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    Barnabas Scott: Ugly women, the Eskimos. My god, they were ugly. (beat) F[*]ed about three of them.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Pipilok manages to oust Sebastian and take over his role, only to become a bully to the other actors the same way he was to him.
  • Kindhearted Simpleton: Pipilok initially is clearly the most naïve member of his tribe. Exploited by William H. Sebastian.
  • Hollywood Natives: Also exploited by Sebastian.
  • Lost in Character:
    William H. Sebastian: Pipilok now believes he is the hunter we have made him out to be. He started to refer to himself as Kunuk and insists we do the same.
  • Show Within a Show: Kunuk is a mockumentary within a mockumentary within a show within a show.
  • The Prima Donna: Parodied with Pipilok.
  • Prima Donna Director: Sebastian and later Pipilok.
  • Pun-Based Title: "Kunuk" sounds a lot like "Canuck", a mildly derogatory term for Canadiansnote 
  • Time-Shifted Actor: A heavily made-up Bill Hader plays Barnabas Scott in the interview segments, but in the archival material Scott is played by Tim Robinson.
  • Troubled Production: In-Universe: Initially because of Sebastian, with his alcoholism and his abusive Jerkass behavior towards Pipilok. Then he is replaced by Pipilok himself and things get even worse.
  • Verbal Tic: Barnabas Scott is prone to ending his sentences with "I tell ya."

     Episode 3: Dronez: the Hunt for El Chingon 

An investigative piece made by Dronez, the multimedia organization led by Jamison Friend (Jack Black), which takes “hipster journalism” to the extreme. Their intrepid reporters enter the most dangerous places of Ciudad Juárez looking for notorious drug kingpin El Chingón.

A parody of Vice Magazine documentaries.

  • Achievements in Ignorance: After the first two reporter duos get killed in their search, the final duo actually manage to meet and hang out with El Chingon.
  • Affably Evil: El Chingon, who once he finds out that the third set of Dronez reporters somehow trespassed on his property without being killed, decides to treat them to a good time and sit down for an interview.
  • The Cameo: Ty Dolla $ign, brought in by the second duo in a failed attempt to appear intimidating.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "Mexico is directly south of America, which means that it shares a border with...the United States!"
  • Expy:
    • Jamison Friend, the Dronez founder, of Shane Smith.
    • El Chingon, for elusive Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: "El Chingon" means "The Motherfucker" (albeit in the backhanded complimentary sense) in Mexican Spanish.
  • Informed Poverty: Invoked and Exaggerated by Kyle and John who, at Manuel Bautista's house, warn about the appaling extreme poverty of his house, like the fact that they have a first generation PlayStation and hallways so small that they can't even extend their whole arms in them.
  • Lethally Stupid: The first two journalist duos. In the name of fearless journalism, they are literally fearless, ignoring all the desperate warnings of the people around him. Then Reality Ensues.
  • Plot Armor: Totally averted in a parody of the way documentary shows frequently exploit dangerous situations in which people never actually get killed. Two different sets of investigative reporters travel to a dangerous area in search of an extremely violent drug kingpin and, naturally, they get killed.
  • Posthumous Narration: Exploited In-Universe by Dronez.
    Jamison Friend: So, Kyle and John are dead. Luckily for us, they had already recorded their voiceovers.
  • Reality Ensues: The first two pairs of journalists actually do get killed after ignoring warnings that they will be if they press forward.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: Dronez and its “ballz-to-the-wallz” approach to journalism.
    Helen Mirren: And it should be noted that both “ballz” and “wallz” are spelled with zeds.

     Episode 4: The Eye Doesn't Lie 

An investigation into the wrongful conviction of Don Lentile (Armisen), a man sentenced to death for the 1976 murder of sign spinner John Patrick Winslow.

A parody of The Thin Blue Line.

  • Anachronism Stew: Neither Mama's Family, airdancers, nor Poison existed in the time the murder happened. According to one company, sign spinning wasn't around until they invented it in the 80's as well.
  • Berserk Button: Lentile's constant eating of trail mix during his interrogation riles up the detectives so much that they throw the bag of trail mix against the wall.
  • Buffy Speak: Everybody calls the car wash airdancer a "inflatable thingy".
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Don Lentile was framed, charged, and later condemned to the death penalty only because he was pretty annoying.
  • Police are Useless: Every cop involved in this story is a complete idiot.
  • Frame-Up: Don Lentile was framed by the obviously guilty Robbie Whealan.
  • Smug Snake: Whealan is only too pleased with himself in how he framed Don Lentile for the murder.
  • Vanity License Plate: Robbie Wheadlan's license plate is "I <3 PUSS", Don Lentile's is "!JAZZ!".
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     Episode 5: A Town, A Gangster, A Festival 

A documentary crew travels to Arborg, Iceland for the annual festival honoring American gangster Al Capone.

The only episode so far not based on a specific documentary, though it has similarities to a typical Les Blank film.

  • Informed Attribute: None of the three finalists of the Al Capone lookalike contest look much like Capone. One of them is a woman.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Averted, as Árborg and its rival Vogar are both real Icelandic municipalities.
  • Quirky Town: Árborg is obsessed with Al Capone, Chicago and American culture of The Roaring '20s, to the bewilderment of a few of its citizens (like the new mayor) and outsiders.
  • The '60s: Vogar tries to undercut the success of Árborg's Al Capone festival by holding a Jimi Hendrix festival the same weekend.

     Episodes 6 and 7: Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee 

Two-Parter Rockumentary that shows the story of the seminal 70s rock band Blue Jean Committee, and the conflicts between their founders, Gene Allen (Armisen) and Clark Honus (Hader).

Parodies the 2013 documentary History of The Eagles.

  • Adam Westing: Alvin Izoff, the No Celebrities Were Harmed version of legendary music executive Irving Azoff, is actually played by Azoff himself.
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: "Who sent you, the Blue Jean Committee?"
  • Artifact Title: In-Universe The band keeps its name after it changes its style and wears less denim.
  • Berserk Button: After word erroneously gets out in North Chicago that Gene and Clark have embraced vegetarianism, they have to hole up in the studio to avoid being beaten up by mobs.note 
  • The Cameo: Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, Haim, etc., all talk about what the Blue Jean Committee meant to them. Michael McDonald also inducts the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Part 2.
  • Canon Immigrant: Blue Jean Committee was created by Armisen years ago, as one of his many elaborate fake bands.note 
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Their early blues song "Hey Miss"
    Hey miss, can I get a beer?
    And then a couple of beers?
  • Early Installment Weirdness: In-Universe. Blue Jean Committee's early albums were Chicago blues, until even the band themselves could no longer deny that they weren't particularly good at that genre.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The first minutes already make it very clear that whatever money Gene made with the band didn't last long.
  • Lesser Star: Clark
    Chuck Klosterman: I suppose in retrospect it's predictable that this was going to self-combust, when you have one guy in the band doing everything, and the other guy just singing high.
  • The Merch: invoked Since Clark owns the band's name, he put it on whatever inane product he thought could sell. He has a whole Shrine to Self made of them.
  • New Sound Album: Catalina Breeze, their first "Californian" record.
  • Obvious Stunt Double: Clark's falsetto voice.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    Alvin Izoff: They were the two dumbest mother[bleep] I ever met. And I work in the music industry!
  • Retool: Clark has the idea of turning the band from a Chicago Blues act to a typical Californian rock band, even though they have never been in Calfornia and never lived any of the things they sang about.
  • Shout-Out: The title and cover photo for their debut album St. Stanislaus' Matinee are homages to Van Morrison's Saint Dominic's Preview.
  • Title-Only Chorus: "Catalina Breeze"
  • Unreliable Narrator: Clark presents his time and decisions in the band as cool and calculated. Everyone else around him remembers things very differently.
  • Viewers Like You: Parodied with a Commercial Switcheroo, shown in the middle of the last episode, of a Documentary Now! pledge drive.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Gene and Clark haven't seen or talked to each other since the breakup. Much of the documentary has the interviewees wonder what will happen when they're reunited at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or if Gene will even show up. He does, and they're polite and amicable with each other, but their minimal interaction and Clark's sad expressions show there's still everything left unsaid.

Season 2

     Episode 1: The Bunker 

A camera crew follows maverick political strategists Teddy Redbones (Hader) and Alvin Panagoulious (Armisen) as they direct the campaign of underdog candidate Ben Herndon against popular incumbent Tom Lester in the 1992 Ohio governor's race.

Parody of The War Room, the D.A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus film about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

  • Blood on the Debate Floor: Literally. To turn the tide of the election, Redbones shoots himself in the leg at the debate and accuses Lester of dirty tricks.
  • Comically Missing the Point: After approving an ad wishing Tom Lester a happy birthday but adding "let's hope it's his last," Redbones and Panagoulious absolutely cannot understand how it could be construed as a death threat.
  • Dark Horse Victory: Redbones and Panagoulious succeed in getting the utterly unqualified Ben Herndon elected.
  • Is This Thing On?: Redbones tests out a mic by saying "Put the taffy down, Tubby Tammy!"
  • Newscaster Cameo: Tabitha Soren, re-creating her MTV News election coverage from The '90s.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Redbones and Panagoulious are thinly disguised takeoffs of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Hader had previously imitated Carville himself on Saturday Night Live.
  • Shout-Out: Besides The War Room, it also plays roughly like a parody of/homage to The Candidate (which famously employed a documentary-style structure).

     Episode 2: Juan Likes Rice & Chicken 

Food Porn documentary about Juan, an 83-year-old Colombian whose restaurant earns three stars from Michelin despite being a 45-minute walk from the nearest road and having only one meal on the menu. Experts, including restaurant critic Nico Rodriguez (Hader), question whether Juan's son Arturo (Armisen) can continue his legacy.

Parodies Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

  • Absurd Phobia: Arturo's ability to run the restaurant after Juan is gone is uncertain because he's afraid of chickens.
  • I Have No Son!: After Juan's other son Diego opened a competing restaurant, Juan regards him as dead.
    Arturo: I spoke with Diego.
    Juan: Were you at a séance?
  • Minimalism: Juan serves just four items—"warm coffee", a banana split in half, rice with butter, and (sometimes) chicken.
  • The Perfectionist: Juan, who will reject ingredients if they fail to meet his exact specifications by even a hair of a fraction.
  • Stealth Pun: Arturo discusses a bad experience with a mentally ill chicken. Since he's speaking Spanish, he uses the phrase "pollo loco" a couple times.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Arturo. Everyone, especially his father Juan, questions whether he could take over the restaurant and maintain its level of perfection.
  • Workaholic: Juan, even more than Jiro in the original film. He hasn't missed work in 35 years, even during heart attacks.

     Episode 3: Parker Gail's Location Is Everything 

Famed monologist Parker Gail (Hader) discusses confronting his personal demons after he's forced to move to another apartment.

Parody of the work of Spalding Gray, and in particular the film Swimming to Cambodia.

  • Big Applesauce: Gail's saga begins with his Lower Manhattan neighborhood falling victim to gentrification. At one point he runs through a long list of Manhattan streets where he goes apartment hunting.
  • Bottle Episode: After the budget for another episode fell through, the creators quickly pieced this one together, choosing a Swimming to Cambodia spoof because it wouldn't require very many sets.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Only natural, since Spalding Gray used this trope frequently.
  • Life Embellished: Deconstructed, as Gail takes so many liberties and exaggerations with his stories that they often have no basis in reality.
  • Marijuana Is LSD: Parker talks about a wild nine-hour experience after taking one puff of a joint that (he says) offered to him by a prospective landlord, but was actually, we learn from the landlord, one Parker had on himself and smoked in the bathroom.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Bill Hader has Spalding Gray's voice and mannerisms down cold.
  • Parental Abandonment: Gail reveals that his parents' divorce and his father leaving home were the sources of his childhood trauma growing up in Rhode Island. Turns out his parents are actually still happily married, and they're very annoyed that he keeps saying they're divorced.
  • Twist Ending: At the end of the episode, we see three people sitting at a table across from Gail, who have apparently been listening to him this whole time. They're the parole board, and it turns out he's in prison for burning down the Stereo City that was built at the site of his former apartment. Unsurprisingly, his application is denied
  • Unreliable Narrator: Parker is shown to be this, as everyone he mentions in his monologue gets a chance to respond and point out everything he makes up.

     Episode 4: Globesman 

1968 documentary following the lives of four door-to-door globe salesmen, including Tom O'Halloran (Armisen) and Pete Reynolds (Hader).

Parody of Salesman.

  • Butt-Monkey: Tom, even more than his role model Paul from Salesman. Not only is he bad at his job, the other salesmen have no respect for him.
  • Continuity Nod: Globesman is a documentary by the Fein Brothers who made Sandy Passage from Season 1.
  • Cringe Comedy: Tom's constant verbal missteps, like casually saying he might "Jew down" a couple before he looks at their last name and realizes they're Jewish, and telling a man his allegedly 13-year-old daughter looks older because her breasts are rather well-developed for her age.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: In homage to Salesman.
  • Everybody Smokes: Smoking is a vital part of the life of a Traveling Salesman in The '60s. Pete even orders a pack of cigarettes for lunch.
  • Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Tom, who loses sales for, among other things, yelling at a kid for pointing out a typo on the globe and insulting Jewish people to an old couple two seconds before realizing they're probably Jewish too.
  • Traveling Salesman: Parody of the one of the classic works depicting this trope.

     Episode 5: Final Transmission 

Art Rock band Test Pattern is playing their final concert before going on a hiatus, and the tensions between singer Lee Smith (Armisen) and bassist Mark (Hader) are explored.

Parody of Stop Making Sense.

  • Black Sheep Hit invoked: While Lee was the Face of the Band, dominating Test Pattern with his artsy songs, their biggest hit was "Save Time for Me", a poppy ballad written and sung by Anita (played by Maya Rudolph). In true '80s fashion, it was also a Breakaway Pop Hit, from Sun Warriors (apparently some sort of Heroic Fantasy movie, judging from the projections on the screen behind them while they play it).
  • The Cameo: Paul Thomas Anderson is the voice of Harrison Renzi, the show's version of Jonathan Demme (of which Anderson himself is a Big Name Fan.)
  • Continuity Nod: Like Location is Everything, Final Transmission is directed by Harrison Renzi.
  • I Am the Band: Lee Smith, the pretentious lead singer of Test Pattern, and primary source of inter-band tension due to his attitude. He doesn't consider Anita's and Mark's songs to be Test Pattern songs.
  • Jerkass: Lee Smith seems to go out of his way to give Mark a hard time. Despite Mark writing several songs, Lee only allowed one to be recorded. Before they play it in the concert, Lee has an extended intro describing how people reviewed Mark's vocals negatively, and then near the end of the song he tells the audience it's almost over.
  • Lesser Star: Mark, the timid, bitter bassist for the band.
  • New Wave Music: Along with parodying Talking Heads, Test Pattern's music is an amalgamation of 80s New Wave Art Pop, including the unusual World Music influences.
  • Shout-Out:
    • While Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense are the main focus of the parody, other elements seem inspired by The Last Waltz and The Band (the farewell concert, the off-camera director interviewing the band members, intragroup financial squabbles).
    • "I.O.U. 7 Cents" is a pastiche of Tom Waits' Jazz and Experimental eras, down to Lee taking on Tom's raspy voice and mannerisms.
  • Starving Artist: The song "Art + Student = Poor".
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Anita ("Save Time for Me") and Mark ("Everybody's Moving Around") both get chances to sing songs they wrote. Lee isn't very thrilled about letting them have the spotlight.
  • Stylistic Suck: Mark's vocals for "Everybody's Moving Around" are weird and awkward, and Hader had to do multiple takes due to singing it too well.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: invoked Very much the philosophy of Lee Smith. He once engaged in a project where he married different objects to prove "the banality of marriage", finally marrying Anita, who happened to be Mark's ex-girlfriend.
  • World Music: Lee adds Balinese gamelan musicians to one song, much to the consternation of Mark.

     Episodes 6 and 7: Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid 

Two-Part Episode. Colorful producer Jerry Wallach (Hader) recounts the ups and downs of his turbulent five decades in Hollywood, including his collaborations with Italian star Enzo Entolini (Armisen).

Parody of The Kid Stays in the Picture.

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Invoked by Wallach himself to explain the casting of blonde bombshell Bridget Bailey in the film version of the novel She Cried for Justice.
    "I wanted to find an actress who was vulnerable, yet resilient. Someone who, when the audience looked into her eyes, they saw the horrors of The Holocaust. But, she had to be hot."
  • Always Second Best: The main theme of Wallach's life. His films constantly receive Oscar nominations but always lose.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Wallach talks of the day that changed his life being first seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves...only except admiring the movie itself, he was looking at the packed theater and how much money it was making. From the start, his entire journey is about the money, not the art.
  • The Cameo: Peter Bogdanovich, Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway and Peter Fonda all share stories about Jerry Wallach, and Anne Hathaway presents an Academy Award in a newly-filmed sequence.
  • Canon Immigrant: Jerry Wallach is partly based on the President of Hollywood, a character Bill Hader played at the Comedy Central roast of James Franco.
  • Fictional Counterpart: Pinnacle Pictures for Paramount Pictures, right down to having an iconic mountain peak logo.
  • Follow the Leader: invoked One of Wallach's failed strategies to win an Oscar is to make obvious knockoffs of recent acclaimed films, like Koreatown, Back from Vietnam and Upset, and White Love in Rhodesia.
  • Historical In-Joke: Peter Bogdanovich is known for his neck scarf. In the episode, he says he made a bet with Jerry Wallach that Friend of the Son of Man would not recoup. If Jerry won, Peter would have to "wear a bandanna around [his] neck everyday for fifty years... And here we are."
  • In Name Only: Averted when, having more or less rewritten Edna Bach's Holocaust memoir into a Romantic Comedy, Wallach decides to retitle the film as well.
  • Kick the Dog: After so many chances, Jerry thinks he's finally going to get his Oscar with a Humanitarian award named after him...only to discover he's one of four other nominees...And then it goes to long-time friend and star Enzo.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Jerry Wallach is a spoof of Robert Evans, which creates a Celebrity Paradox when we see footage of Evans himself at an Oscar ceremony.
    • Enzo Entolini is an oblique spoof of Roman Polanski and how Robert Evans kept hiring him whenever he was in a jam.
  • Oscar Bait: Plenty of it, but the Academy wouldn't bite.
  • Sword & Sandal: Wallach's first attempt at Oscar Bait was the epic Friend of the Son of Man, based on a controversial non-canonical Gospel (since other studios had already bought the rights to the actual Bible).
  • Take That!: Wallach disparages several films that won Oscars he was aiming for:
  • Unreliable Narrator: The episode opens with Peter Bogdanovich warning the filmmakers that Wallach is one.
    "Everybody has a great Jerry Wallach story, everybody. The only person in Hollywood who doesn't have a great Jerry Wallach story is Jerry Wallach. Because his are all lies. In fact, if you can keep Jerry Wallach as far away from this documentary as possible, you might actually have something close to the truth."

Season 3

     Episodes 1 and 2: Batsh*t Valley 

Two-Part Episode. In The '80s, Cult leader Ra-Shawbard (Owen Wilson) and his followers take over the small town of Chinook, Oregon. Along with extensive archival footage, there are interviews with former cult members, townspeople, Ra-Shawbard's controversial lieutenant Ra-Sharir (Necar Zadegan), and FBI Agent Bill Dawes (Michael Keaton), who took particular interest in the cult.

Parody of the Netflix series Wild Wild Country, with some material inspired by the theatrical documentaries The Source Family and Holy Hell.

  • Addled Addict: Ra-Shawbard preaches purity, but eagerly consumes a variety of drugs.
  • Been There, Shaped History: It's suggested that Ra-Sharir might have been in Jonestown, and she may have manipulated them into mass suicide so she could steal their money.
  • Big, Stupid Doodoo-Head:
    • As the war between the Shawbardites and Chinook mayor Marge Middleton escalates, Ra-Sharir breaks into the town newspaper offices and inserts an obituary into the paper.
      Today, Marge Middleton lost her long battle with stupidity. She will not be remembered by her friends and family, as they are too stupid to do so. Services will be held wherever stupid people are buried.
    • Marge retaliates by renaming the town Ra-Shawbard's Butthole.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Turns out that Ra-Shawbard was an FBI agent and the whole cult was fabricated by the FBI.
  • Elective Mute: Ra-Sharir announces that an obviously drug-addled Ra-Shawbard has taken a vow of silence, which conveniently means that cult members now have to follow her orders.
  • A God Am I: Ra-Shawbard develops chemically-induced delusions of godhood. He decides to test them by having a car drive toward him at full speed. It doesn't end well.
  • Helium Speech: The Shawbardites have a special ritual called Heliumtropic Meditation, where members inhale helium then confess to misdeeds in their altered voices.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Ra-Shawbard's pronouncements have this feel to them. Deliberately so, since his cult is the creation of FBI agents, who can't resist Trolling his gullible followers
    There is the world we see, but there's also a second world that we do not. How do we unlock the door for that world? And if there's a second world, could there be a third one? A fourth one? Could there be a sixth world?
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: Delivered uncensored and with the utmost seriousness by Helen Mirren.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Connie Chung, in Retraux newscast footage from The '80s.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Ra-Shawbard is a cross between Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (subject of Wild Wild Country), a guru from India who started a commune in Oregon and ran afoul of authorities, and Father Yod (formerly James Edward Baker), the leader of the Source Family, a hippie cult that owned a vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles in The '70s. Ra-Sharir is based on Rajneesh's spokesperson, Ma Anand Sheela, the Ensemble Dark Horse of Wild Wild Country.
  • Psyhcopathic Womanchild: Ra-Sharir is a manipulative, militant zealot, but also very immature. Her wrath toward the people of Chinook goes into overdrive because they refused to give her first prize in a pumpkin-carving contest.
  • Shout-Out: An FBI Agent named Cooper is sent to a small town in The Other Rainforest.
  • Significant Anagram: The names of the Shawbardites are actually anagrams of the the last names of Pittsburgh Steelers players from The '70s, with "Ra" added at the beginning
  • Sinister Shades: Ra-Sharir starts wearing them after she takes over the cult.
  • The Starscream: Ra-Sharir, a Mysterious Woman who becomes Ra-Shawbard's second-in-command and spokesperson, but then starts taking over the cult, including drugging Ra-Shawbard to incapacitate him.

     Episode 3: Original Cast Album: Co-Op 

An intimate view of the marathon recording of the Broadway musical cast album set and performed in the 1970s and featuring a cast of eclectic characters wanting to live together in the titular co-op. Tensions arise between creators Simon Sawyer (John Mulaney), Howard Pine (James Urbaniak) and producer Benedict Juniper (Taran Killam) and the cast members Larry (Richard Kind), Patty (Paula Pell) and Dee Dee (Renee Elise Goldsberry).

A parody of D.A. Pennebaker's behind-the-scenes documentarynote  Original Cast Album: Company, a chronicle of the 14-hour recording session for the Stephen Sondheim musical. Another documentary dealing with a Sondheim musical, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (about Merrily We Roll Along), is referenced as well.

  • Actor Allusion: In Real Life, Richard Kind was part of the original cast of a Stephen Sondheim-penned, Harold Prince-directed musical: 2003's Bounce.
  • All There in the Manual: IFC has released the actual album on vinyl, and the liner notes explain the musical a little more, including character names—Larry plays Robbie the doorman, Dee Dee plays Anne (a tennis pro), Patty plays Donna, and the character who sings "Holiday Party" is named Danny.
  • Big Applesauce: Co-op is a musical about the residents of a New York apartment building, and their doorman.
  • Creator Cameo: Benedict Juniper joins in at the end of the finale, "Going Up".
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Lyrics for a couple of the songs reveal that Co-op was set during the holiday season.
  • "I Want" Song: "My Home Court", where Anne sings about wanting to move in to the co-op, and how she'll decorate her apartment.
  • It's Pronounced "Tro-PAY": According to Sawyer, there’s only one way to pronounce the word “ruined”, and it’s “rooned”, like “harpooned”.
  • Long Title: Sawyer brags that his previous hit musical Has Anyone Ever Told You You'd Look Better as a Brunette? was the longest title in Broadway history.
  • Meaningless Meaningful Words: Sawyer's coaching of the performers is full of these.
    "When you lean into a rhyme, you shatter the conversational tone of the lyric."
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: D.A. Pennebaker becomes R.C. Baumgartner in this universe, and the main figures in the original documentary have thinly-disguised equivalents. Simon Sawyer is Stephen Sondheim, Howard Pine is Company producer/director Harold Prince, Benedict A. Juniper is Thomas Z. Shepard (the Company album's producer) and Patty is Elaine Stritch (whose difficulty recording "The Ladies Who Lunch" is the Signature Scene of the original).
  • Patter Song:
    • "Christmas Tips", Robbie the doorman's showcase number, is so stuffed with lyrics that Larry struggles to breathe when he sings it.
    • "Holiday Party", where it's revealed that Danny is singing fast because he went to the holiday party high on cocaine.
  • Tuckerization: Besides having the same initials as Stephen Sondheim, John Mulaney also chose the name Simon Sawyer as a Shout-Out to two writers he worked with on Saturday Night Live, Simon Rich and Marika Sawyer.

     Episode 4: Waiting for the Artist 

Legendary performance artist Izabella Barta (Cate Blanchett) returns to her homeland of Hungary to stage a career retrospective exhibit, which she plans to climax with a new piece. But she's having trouble coming up with a good concept for it. Her ex-collaborator (and ex-lover) Dimo van Omen (Armisen) is also interviewed.

Parody of Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

  • Accidental Art: Invoked by Dimo, who at the last minute before one of his exhibitions opens, goes to the store and buys whatever's available, then throws random combinations together and presents them as finished pieces.
  • Con Man: Dimo treads the fine line between being a conceptual artist and being one of these.
  • Creator Couple: invoked Izabella and Dimo had a long working relationship, which often reflected their romantic relationship.
  • Eccentric Artist: Izabella is definitely a Cloudcuckoolander, but everyone just attributes her behavior to her unusual artistic sensibility.
  • Hiding In A Bathroom Stall: For her 2007 installation A Stranger in Need, Izabella sat on a toilet in a closed stall, while patrons took turns sitting in the adjacent stall and handing her sheets of toilet paper.
  • Mad Artist: Izabella flirts with being one of these, though generally she's the one who's the target of the suffering caused by her pieces.
  • Non-Specifically Foreign: Dimo is based in Italy (and has a vaguely Italian accent), but his surname seems to be Dutch, and his nationality is hard to actually pin down.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Izabella is a thinly-disguised Marina Abramović and Dimo is Ulay.
  • Shout-Out: Most of Izabella Barta's projects are direct parodies of Marina Abramović pieces, especially The Bucket Series (of Rhythm 0) and Stairwell (of Lovers, where Abramović and Ulay walked on the Great Wall of China to symbolize their breakup).
  • True Art: invoked Izabella's work fully explores the Incomprehensible and Angsty elements of this trope. One of the rejected ideas for her latest exhibit is to burn down the museum.

     Episode 5: Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter from the Far Side 

Brad Adams (Armisen) is a huge lifelong fan of The Far Side. Deciding that his destiny is to make a documentary about Gary Larson, Brad (with his father as the cameraman) leaves his wife and newborn child at home in Colorado so he can drive to Seattle on a quest to find his hero.

Parody of Dear Mr. Watterson, a 2013 documentary about Calvin and Hobbes, and more generally the subgenres of crowdfunded DIY documentaries aimed at specific Fandoms, and docs where the director sets off to find a Reclusive Artist (In Search of Steve Ditko, Paul Williams: Still Alive).

  • Copiously Credited Creator: invoked Brad is credited with everything in the film except camera.
  • The Determinator: Even though everyone tells him that the film is a dumb idea, or warns him that Larson hates publicity, Brad continues on to Seattle to find him.
  • Product Placement: There's a scene set outside an Applebee's. Applebee's just happened to be the main sponsor of this episode.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Brad's wife Lisa gives him one over the phone (not that it stops him).
    "Come on, Brad! Your movie is pretty dumb! I mean, what's the point of it anyway? That Gary Larson exists? I think everyone already knows that!"
  • They Stole Our Act: Brad is crushed when he goes to Gary Larson's house and finds there's already a crew there shooting an American Masters episode about Larson, directed by Ken Burns.
  • Unreliable Voiceover: Brad's general cluelessness about life seeps into his narration, which is almost always contradicted by what's actually happening onscreen.

     Episode 6: Long Gone 

1999 study of Rex Logan (Armisen), a brilliant-but-self-destructive Jazz guitarist, mixing old performance footage with scenes of his day-to-day life and interviews with his associates, including ex-girlfriend Carla Meola (Natasha Lyonne).

Parody of Let's Get Lost.

     Episode 7: Any Given Saturday Afternoon 

2002 account of TV sports executive Rob Seger (Kevin Dunn) and his efforts to resurrect the Professional Bowlers League. Once one of the biggest draws in American sports, the PBL folded in 1992 due to bad ratings. Backed by investors, Seger has convinced big names like Billy May Dempsey (Michael C. Hall), Rick Kenmore (Tim Robinson) and Larry Hawburger (Bobby Moynihan) to renew their quests for bowling glory.

Parody of A League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

  • Boring, but Practical: Even Rob Seger agrees that Billy is an incredible bowler, but he completely lacks a personality.
  • Butt-Monkey: Larry is a terrible bowler, and is treated like this by the PBL community.
  • Heel: Rick, with his bad boy persona, plays this role for the league.
  • Lives in a Van: Larry lives in his car now. He happily notes that he doesn't need to pack his belongings for his trip to the PBL qualifiers in Vegas.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The main characters are all obviously based on the main figures in A League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Rob Seger is PBA Director Steve Miller, Billy May Dempsey is Walter Ray Williams Jr., Rick Kenmore is Pete Weber and Larry Hawburger is Wayne Webb.
  • Poster-Gallery Bedroom: Billy's wife has one dedicated to ALF (who Billy doesn't like because he's too disrespectful).
  • Putting the Band Back Together: What Seger does in his relaunch of the PBL.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Seger ramps up the drama in the PBL by hyping the contrast between Rick (Red) and Billy (Blue).
  • Serious Business: Bowling is this for everyone in the film, though Seger makes some backhanded statements that suggest, deep down, he thinks it's a ridiculous sport.
  • Sports Game: The PBL had a licensed video game back in The '80s (with Billy, Rick and Larry as playable characters).
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: A frequent facial expression for Billy, along with the quiet intensity he brings to his bowling. His nickname is "Dead Eyes Dempsey".
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Rick is the son of PBL legend Stan Kenmore, who doesn't think too highly of Rick's bowling skills. Despite his rebellious personality, Rick desperately wants Stan's approval.

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