“Documentary Now!,” the brainchild of four very successful “Saturday Night Live” alumni (Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Rhys Thomas), takes the best elements of the latter’s sketches and extends them into bite-size mockumentaries. Very often, these mockumentaries skillfully straddle the line of surreal and somehow perfectly believable, taking real documentaries and turning up the dial ever so slightly on every aspect of production. Season 3 (or Season 52 as the show calls it) begins with an ambitious, yet perfectly executed parody of “Wild Wild Country,” aptly named “Batsh*t Valley.”
The mockumentary tells the story of coked-up cult leader, Ra-Shawbard (Owen Wilson, “Cars 3”), who takes his groups of followers to a small Oregon town called Chinook. The townspeople are perplexed, but welcome the new residents anyway. They are amused by the cult’s insistence on, for example, making sure the vegetables they eat give them permission to be eaten. On the other hand, they are less amused by the frequent, loud orgies that become a point of conflict.
The story is told through a mix of old newsreel footage and present-day interviews of former cult members and FBI agent Bill Dawes (Michael Keaton, “Spider Man: Homecoming”). There’s rarely a line of wasted dialogue, and the tension that escalates between the cult and the townspeople becomes so engaging it’s hard to forget how batsh*t it all actually is. You might just believe for a second that you are in fact watching a documentary about a Jonestown-esque cult, but then the show throws out something remarkably absurd such as “orgasm jars,” where cult members must scream their pleasure into a jar in order to preserve it for future moments of darkness.
Even more impressive than Wilson’s woozy cult leader performance was that of Nescar Zadegan (“The Good Doctor”) as cult spokesman “Ra-Sharir.” She is a truly detestable villain: Her checkered past and dark turn lay the groundwork for the second half, where the show truly goes insane, reminiscent of the final fight sequence in “Hot Fuzz.” Like when it is revealed that the names of cult members are just anagrams of the names of Steelers players (“Ra-Shawbard” is derived from Terry Bradshaw). Yet, within the framework that the episode develops for itself, all the events still seem strangely natural.
“Batsh*t Valley” features an impressive attention to detail in the way it parodies its source material. The most absurd aspects of the cult are detailed in the same manner-of-fact tone as “Wild Wild Country,” and some specific characters will be instantly recognizable to fans of the show. However, it is absolutely not necessary to have watched “Wild Wild Country” to enjoy this, and like any show made by Fred Armisen and Bill Hader that I have ever watched, I can guarantee several references and jokes went over my head. And that’s what makes “Documentary Now!” continue being so brilliant. Even though it may not be for everyone, everyone can indeed find their own way to enjoy it and marvel at its absurdity.