“Documentary Now!” a TV series known for its affectionate parodies of non-fiction films from across time periods and genres, returned to IFC on Feb. 20. The third season’s premiere, a two-part episode called “Batsh*t Valley,” riffs on “Wild Wild Country,” an Emmy-winning 2018 Netflix docu-series about a fanatical commune that overruns a remote Oregon town and invites a large-scale federal investigation into its increasingly suspicious practices. “Batsh*t Valley” is an ambitious endeavor, demonstrative of the show’s maturation since it last aired in 2016.
“Wild Wild Country” garnered attention largely due to the unbelievable nature of the real-life events and themes it chronicled. Beside the façade of a mindful paradise, group leaders engaged in rampant drug abuse, anti-government conspiracy, free love, cult rituals, poisoning, and murder. Because its source material is already so laughably absurd, several scenes in Part 1 of “Batsh*t Valley” highlight and directly quote moments from “Wild Wild Country,” a decision that comes off as too obvious or even a bit uncreative. That being said, Part 2 completely departs from and reinterprets Part 1 (and by extension, “Wild Wild Country”) in a liberated and silly fashion that justifies the relative restraint of the episode’s first half. This strategic pacing, which rewards viewers for their patience, demonstrates a quiet confidence on the part of the show’s writers that is not seen in previous seasons, which utilize a uniform degree of ridiculous humor from start to finish.
“Batsh*t Valley” takes another risk with its cast, which features more established performers rather than the purely comedic actors that usually star in the show. As such, they deliver calmer, more nuanced performances than what fans of previous seasons might expect. Owen Wilson plays Father Ra-Shawbard, a clear caricature of the cult’s leader, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Wilson’s signature dopey charm lends itself to an uncanny recreation of Bhagwan’s nonsensical and lethargic yet eerily mesmerizing persona. Michael Keaton has a supporting role as FBI agent Bill Doss, a hybrid of the various law enforcement officers interviewed in “Wild Wild Country.” Most entertaining to watch, however, is the relatively unknown Necar Zadegan, whose feisty and rebellious character of Ra-Sharir (a spoof on Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s power-grabbing assistant) delivers the episode’s wackiest lines.
Notably absent from the screen are two of the show’s co-creators, “Saturday Night Live” alumni Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, at least one of whom has acted in each of the program’s previous installments. Still, this episode embodies their trademark mix of the real and the bizarre, fitting seamlessly into the canon of “Documentary Now!” “Batsh*t Valley” proves that the show’s formula can continue to evolve while preserving its identity. By incorporating more high-profile actors into its retinue, “Documentary Now!” has the potential to expand its small yet loyal fan base, and to finally enter the mainstream. It’s a fortunate choice — while Armisen will feature prominently in the remainder of the season, Hader will not appear at all due to his starring role on the dark comedy TV series “Barry.”
Most episodes of “Documentary Now!” examine historically significant films like the groundbreaking “Nanook of the North” (1922) and cult classics such as “Grey Gardens” (1975) and “The War Room” (1993). That being said, the show shines most brightly with the episodes that demonstrate Armisen and Hader’s ability to rapidly interpret and satirize the latest documentary trends. In the first season, “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon” satirized Vice’s over-the-top guerrilla investigative features that dominated online journalism in 2015. The following year, “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” depicted a distinctly lowbrow counterpart to Netflix’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and early episodes of “Chef’s Table.” The arrival of “Batsh*t Valley” all the more confirms this skill.
In a similar vein, “Wild Wild Country” captured the Internet’s attention for several months after its debut last March due to the unbelievable nature of its story. As streaming services have generated a burgeoning contemporary preoccupation with documentary films and series — Hulu’s and Netflix’ competing Fyre Festival features come to mind — “Documentary Now!” returns from its three-year hiatus positioned to both distill and satirize our cultural zeitgeist better than ever before.