Ranking Documental’s first 4 seasons is a tricky one. It’s a show like no other and certainly isn’t for everyone with an unparalleled joke/minute rate. In the first episode, host Hitoshi Matsumoto even comments on the increased freedom resulting from a much further refined audience for the show. According to Matsumoto, “geezers” who wouldn’t get the show won’t be able to figure out how to access Amazon Prime anyway.
The premise is simple; ten comedians are locked in a room with one rule: do not laugh. This simple setup always devolves into chaos as they battle to make each other laugh to be the last one standing and win 10 million yen. This list will rank all four series that have had a full release outside of Japan at the time of writing this article.
For this season ranking, I am working from the understanding that the things a Matsumoto fan might enjoy aren’t for everyone. Weirdness, filth and completely inexplicable gags will score high. The final episodes are always a particular strong point. Therefore, the utter degeneracy of the finale will also be weighed heavily. Ranking Documental seasons won’t be easy with so much constantly going on at once, but these are the competitions that elicited the strongest reactions from me.
4. Season 1
By no means is season 1 bad or even mediocre. It’s an incredible piece of television that got me hooked on a show from a country I had never watched a live-action programme from before. The first episode sets up the cast and bizarrely serious tone perfectly, and it then precedes to break down both. What sets this series behind the others are the initial growing pains. The absence of attack points, as seen in later series, promotes defensive strategy. The comedians are understandably unsure of what is coming as they have never seen the show before. Fujimoto only bringing a tiny bag is hilarious but demonstrates the lack of big plans as seen in later seasons.
Some of the biggest shocks of the season are brilliant and effective. However, perhaps they would not have been so effective if viewers had already seen the bigger shocks from later contestants.
3. Season 3
Maybe a surprising pick to some, the third season is not quite as good as the two remaining competitions. Matsumoto opens season 4, expressing shock that many fans put 2 above 3 in their personal rankings. Though consistently funny, the third series is perhaps not quite as memorable as the others. The newly introduced zombie system brought back eliminated competitors to try and catch out survivors.
This produced some hilarious gags but the zombie moments lack the tension of regular play since the zombies are not taking a risk by going on the offensive. The bathhouse scene is certainly an exception to the rule as it is a standout moment for the whole show. That it doesn’t catapult this season to the top of the rankings shows the strength of Documental as a whole.
2. Season 4
The most recent series to be released in the West features the most shocking moment in the whole show. I… err… I probably can’t say what it is. However, if you have watched the show, you know what it is. The fact the contestants are able to up the ante again in the fourth outing is incredibly impressive.
Gross-out humour also reaches its peak in this series, and some of the interactions between the contestants are able to string together longer threads than simple one-off gags. Kukky attempting to go for the win after being funny but risible in previous outings is an engaging storyline. The respected veterans going all out humiliating themselves and Kuro-chan’s stoicism cannot go unmentioned. Overall the constantly changing team-ups might be the defining feature of the season… well, besides that bodily function.
1. Season 2
The greatest season of Documental also features, for my money, the greatest episode of television ever recorded. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the finale of this series is better than Ozymandias, The View from Halfway Down and Any Old Port in a Storm (chosen here because I also think they are amazing). The whole time you are laughing through this series, an unplanned plotline is building through the competition’s many gags. Two comedians, perhaps exact opposites when it comes to strategies on the show, reach a final head to head. The ensuing battle of wills is at once hilarious, tense, dramatic and absurd.
This is not to say that the season is a one-trick pony; the hoover/dish scene is gold. Jimmy’s hijinks, the window gags and Fujimoto’s understated quips are brilliantly woven together with innumerable other funny moments and moments of seemingly unwarranted laughter. The attack points system eliminates some of the issues from the first competition, and the competitors seem much more certain of what it is they are actually supposed to be doing. On repeat viewing, you don’t miss ‘zombie time’ either.
The show caught lightning in a bottle with this season, and though I hope they will, I can’t quite see the rest of the series outdoing it. However, Japanese-speaking fans have rated the currently-unreleased-in-the-West seasons 5, 7 and 9 very highly. Regardless, when they arrive, I couldn’t be more excited for more Documental and recommend it to anyone with a slightly off-kilter sense of humour.