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'SNL' alums continue to poke fun at nonfiction films with 'Documentary Now!'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Documentary Now!," the comedy anthology series about a pretend nonfiction anthology series returns Wednesday for its fourth season on IFC. It comes from Lorne Michaels and his Broadway Video production company. And its creators are several well-known "Saturday Night Live" alumni, including Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. In half-hour episodes, it's parodied such documentaries as "Grey Gardens" and the recording of the soundtrack for the musical "Company." Our TV critic David Bianculli still loves it. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

HELEN MIRREN: Good evening. I'm Helen Mirren, and you're watching "Documentary Now!," Season 53.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That is the real Helen Mirren. But "Documentary Now!" isn't a serious public TV anthology series, and it isn't anywhere close to Season 53. It's a comedy series making appreciative fun of documentaries. It began on IFC in 2015, and for Season Four, it starts with a two-part episode taking aim at "Burden Of Dreams," the 1982 Les Blank documentary about the making of a Werner Herzog film, "Fitzcarraldo."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

MIRREN: In 1983, German filmmaker Reiner Waltz set out into the punishing Ular Mountains of Russia with an uncompromising vision. But over the grueling months of filming, truth and fiction blurred. As did man and nature. Witness "Soldier Of Illusion."

BIANCULLI: As with its other parodies, this "Documentary Now!" version is delightfully amusing on its own, devoid of context. But if you've seen "Burden Of Dreams," in which Herzog struggles with nature, Indigenous people and his own volcanic movie stars, this fake documentary is even more entertaining. And if you've seen any of the nonfiction films in which Herzog himself appears and narrates, you'll adore, as I did, the dead-on deadpan approximation of him, as played by a heavily accented, quietly whispering Alexander Skarsgard. And the absurdity of what he's saying only adds to the fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: (As Werner Herzog) The last time I stood on these ignorant stones, I was a younger man filled with Bavarian pride. I had taken two jobs at once, and with the vinegar of the pompous declared I could shoot both projects at the same time on the same location, here. One was a film chronicling the life of the Duskir (ph) people during the Tusian (ph) sheep breeding season. The other was a CBS sitcom called "Bachelor Nanny," the story of a single guy who, after agreeing to take in his sister's twin newborns, has to juggle babies and babes.

BIANCULLI: That season opener is written by John Mulaney, and fans of his won't be disappointed by how far he dares to pursue his peculiar sense of humor. Another terrific episode this coming season is written by Seth Meyers, and it's called "My Monkey Grifter." It starts out as a parody of the recent documentary cult hit "My Octopus Teacher" and stars Jamie Demetriou from "Fleabag." He plays Benjamin Clay, a very earnest filmmaker who sets out to make a movie where he spends every day at the zoo communicating with a rhesus monkey. He only begins that film, though, after completing an ultimately disappointing moviemaking experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

JAMIE DEMETRIOU: (As Benjamin Clay) I had just released my first documentary film, "The Man Who Spoke To Birds," which told the story of Horace Materny (ph), an elderly bird enthusiast I'd met him at a pub who'd spent his life writing a bird-to-human dictionary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Horace Materny) Did you hear that? It was saying it may rain soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CAWING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Horace Materny, cawing) I agree.

DEMETRIOU: (As Benjamin Clay) As someone who had trouble communicating with people, I was deeply touched by his efforts. Yet when the film was released, the man I had taken for a genius was branded a dotty old plonker.

BIANCULLI: This episode, too, is funny in or out of context. But if you've seen "My Octopus Teacher," you'll love the almost reverential tone of "My Monkey Grifter." And the plot in this one borrows cleverly from so many other sources that before long, this story about a film in progress becomes part "Strangers On A Train," part "The Staircase" and part murder mystery. The strength of "Documentary Now!" is that even when it indulges itself in a two-parter, this anthology series stakes out the middle ground between a short "SNL" sketch and a full-length movie. It allows the writers and producers to play with subjects that might be too esoteric and wouldn't make the cut as familiar parody targets for an average "SNL" audience. And it allows the creators to dive in with bigger production values and a little more time and depth, yet doesn't overindulge them with a full-length movie canvas. And overall, the spirit is a loving one. Like Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians In Cars With Coffee," "Documentary Now!" has found the perfect format for what it set out to do - just the right length and the exact right comic approach. If IFC's "Documentary Now!" makes it to an actual Season 53, I wouldn't be at all surprised - or I expect alive, but I digress.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the return of the comedy anthology series "Documentary Now!" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Robert Draper. He writes that since Donald Trump left office, the Republican Party has plunged deeper into what he calls the Trumpian cult of lies and conspiracy mongering. As a result, he says, politicians once regarded as fringe figures are now leaders of the GOP. His new book, "Weapons Of Mass Delusion," explains how that happened. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.