I am simultaneously grateful for the existence of Documentary Now! and baffled that it continues to exist. A TV show dedicated to parodying a different documentary with each episode seems too niche to be successful, even in the age of a show for every possible niche. A recent episode, “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” parodied Original Cast Album: Company, which is out of circulation and mainly exists as an inside joke for theater people. But the IFC series, created by a roster of Saturday Night Live alumni, has been kept alive, and is now in the middle of its third season. And tonight’s episode, “Waiting for the Artist,” is the perfect introduction to this odd and wonderful show.
Documentary Now! is the kind of parody where the attention to detail is so exacting that one could at first mistake it for the real thing. It’s presented as a venerated, totally serious PBS-type show that’s supposedly in its 52nd season, complete with Dame Helen Mirren introducing each episode. “Waiting for the Artist” treats the fictional performance artist Izabella Barta (played by guest star Cate Blanchett) with poker-face legitimacy. It’s not until we get video of her piece “Gender Roles on Spin Cycle,” in which she stoically sits in a commercial dryer as it spins, that one might start to twig that something’s off.
The show alternates between tackling more recent documentaries (turning Wild Wild Country into “Batshit Valley,” or Jiro Dreams of Sushi into “Juan Loves Chicken and Rice”) and classic ones (Grey Gardens becomes “Sandy Passage,” Stop Making Sense becomes “Final Transmission”). Whatever the subject, it pours effort into imitating the original’s look. In the case of “Waiting for the Artist,” the basis is the 2012 film Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present. Directed by Matthew Akers, it both profiled Abramović and went behind the scenes of her 2010 MoMA show of the same name, in which she sat perfectly still while a parade of different patrons were ushered in to sit across from her. (In “Waiting for the Artist,” this is turned into Barta sitting in a facsimile toilet stall, with visitors given the opportunity to pass her some toilet paper. The piece is called “A Stranger in Need.”)
Documentary Now! turns up the unique story elements in each documentary it riffs on just to the point of blatant absurdity. Abramović is a good vector for this because so much of her work has involved physical harm or strain. It’s only a quick hop from that to outright slapstick. Her infamous “Rhythm 0″ piece becomes “the Bucket Series,” in which Barta runs across a floor strewn with dangerous objects while wearing a bucket on her head (and ends up slipping on a skateboard). The Abramović and Ulay collaboration “Incision” becomes “Late for Dinner,” in which Barta fights a giant elastic band to futilely try to reach a table her partner Dimo (Fred Armisen) is eating at.
The really ingenious thing about “Waiting for the Artist” is that the fake art pieces each have real underlying logic, as opposed to just being random (were “Gender Roles on a Spin Cycle” actually possible to perform, it would be a pretty good ’70s feminist statement). They also tie into Barta’s character arc. As she struggles to come up with an idea for her newest show, the story lays out her history with Dimo, who is characterized by extreme laziness both in his art and his relationship with her. The show’s version of “Lovers” is “Staircase,” where Barta and Dimo turn their breakup into a performance via her walking from the bottom to the top of the Empire State Building, with him supposing to do the opposite — except he gets tired and takes the elevator instead.
While Documentary Now! pokes a good deal of fun at performance art, it also recognizes what’s genuinely intriguing about artists using this form to process their lives and the world around them. It builds to a finale that’s both a great punchline and a real triumph for Barta. Not many parodies would give that kind of love to a one-episode fictional artist, but that’s what sets this show apart.
The third season of Documentary Now! is currently premiering new episodes every Wednesday at 11pm on IFC. Season three episodes can also be streamed on IFC’s website, and previous seasons are available on Netflix.