Monday, September 10, 2018

The best show of 2017 - AMERICAN VANDAL - returns this week with new episodes

This Friday brings the second season of Netflix's brilliant comedy series AMERICAN VANDAL. That means if you haven't checked out season one, you have four days to watch eight half-hour episodes and get caught up. This is a completely doable project and the results are well worth it. Trust me.

Last year, I first became aware of AMERICAN VANDAL through a short promo that was posted to the net. The idea of an entire mockumentary series devoted to figuring out who vandalized the cars of a high school faculty by spray-painting dicks on them seemed so ridiculous that I assumed the ad itself was a gag. It presented as a mockery of Netflix's interest in true crime documentaries. Only later did I realize it was real, and it wasn't just a short one-off. I couldn't imagine how they planned on filling four hours of content with a joke that seemed likely to only sustain a five minute sketch.

I had a complete meal of crow after that, let me tell you.

The brilliance of AMERICAN VANDAL is that it isn't just a dick joke and it isn't just out to send up the conventions of the true crime documentary. The creators, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, understood that they had to create an entire world and the documentary-format is merely the conventions they use to explore that teenage culture. I've said before that the most important question to ask before telling a story is "What's it about?"

Here's how I answer that question with regard to AMERICAN VANDAL: it's about modern high school life, and about how smart phones and social media have made the high school experience vastly different than it was for generations before it. It's about how those document our lives, but also how they project versions of ourselves, sometimes inviting judgement, sometimes bringing distortion. It's about a cultural obsession with tales of perceived injustice, and the indifference of those who tell those stories to the collateral damage they leave in their wake.

And it's funny as hell.

When the series starts, Dylan Maxwell has been expelled from his high school following the vandalism of 30 teachers' cars. The vandal spray-painted penises on each of the cars and Dylan was the prime suspect due to his penchant for pranks and the frequency with which he drew dicks as an in-class disruption. But there are a couple loose threads here: first, the dicks are drawn in a different style from Dylan's. Another curious wrinkle is that 30 minutes of security footage is missing. As a member of the school's morning TV show, Dylan would have had the access to erase it, but so would 8 other members of that show.

So two students, Peter and Sam, get to work on their documentary in an effort to get to the bottom of what really happened. Was it indeed Dylan? Or did he get railroaded by a biased teacher out to get him and a system with inadequate due process? Peter and Sam are pitch perfect as the self-righteous crusaders who've likely been inspired by Serial and other true crime dramas. They take this "injustice" seriously because to them, it IS their whole world. We might look down on this high school bullshit, but they live it every day.

One of the great moments of the show comes in episode 4 after Peter and Sam have tried to narrow down the number of possible alternative suspects. At least one of the eight other members of the morning show would have to be involved if Dylan is innocent, so they assess the profiles and alibis of each of them. The two boys also have to acknowledge that they are also suspects as members of the same show, so Peter produces a segment assessing Sam and vice-versa. Sam doesn't take it that seriously, offering up a jokey indictment of his friend that might as well be a bad parody of a negative political ad. Peter, on the other hand, goes for the jugular, and in the process lays out several embarrassing personal details about Sam before ultimately deciding he's not a suspect.

It's a sly character moment, showing Peter is so driven by the opportunity to play Sarah Koenig that he'll go hard after his friend in pursuit of the truth. This isn't the last time we'll see Peter put his documentary project above someone else's feelings. The beauty of the show's structure is that we experience him dig into someone's like, as if he was a 60 MINUTES correspondent building a case against a murder suspect. We're so used to this part of the format that we don't even question it, and if we think about it at all, it's because the joke seems to be that Peter is taking his project FAR too seriously.

The most brilliant moment of the series comes at the start of episode 5. For the first half of the show, we've watched it without really knowing who the audience is. Is this something Peter's making and releasing all at once? Is it even being released? Episode 5 answers that question by revealing that Peter's been posting each episode to the web and at some point after Episode 4 went live, AMERICAN VANDAL went viral. I'd never seen one of the mocumentaries actually deal with the feedback loop that happens when one of these stories gains an obsessed fandom.

Everything Sam and Peter have compiled begins to impact the narrative. A teacher is fired for some unprofessional statements he made about a statement in one of his interviews. A crucial piece of evidence is destroyed when obsessed AV fans harass a peripheral player in the story so much that she gets rid of a recorded prank call that might strengthen Dylan's alibi. For Sam and Peter, one of the benefits is that it forces the school to let them continue filming on campus after having been banned earlier.

But it's also the moment when the story's scope gets wider, as it allows it to touch on all the internet theorizing that happened with series like Serial. I also thought of the crowd-sourcing internet detectives who often cause almost at least as much harm as good when they try to identify suspects in the wake of terrorist events like the Boston Marathon bombing. AMERICAN VANDAL uses the story of Dylan Maxwell to explore all of that, even as it gives one of the more astute looks at modern high school culture.

One of the savvier sequences of the series comes as Sam and Peter examine all the footage from "Nana's Party," a party thrown by one of the students the weekend before the prank. By compiling everyone's social media videos from the party, the documentarians are able to create a timeline of the entire night. The tidbits it reveals might lock down the origin of the spray paint used in the prank, and nail down who had access to it. It's like watching these kids dissect a couple dozen Zapruder films, scrutinizing them for clues.

It's utterly inspired. You can read an entire oral history of it here.

The series manages to get us completely invested in the question of "Who Drew The Dicks?" even as it stops short of giving a definitive answer. What it does provide is an unexpected coda where one student humiliated by the documentary calls Peter out on everything he did needlessly in pursuit of the truth that hurt people. It's a surprising callout of the ethics of these documentaries and a reminder that while we might see only a binge-worthy drama, if you immerse yourself in the world of the series, Peter is NOT the noble hero his perspective frames him as.

99 out of 100 mockumentary creators would not have thought to take that path. At best, some of them might have realized this issue, but decided they were going for humor, not reality. As viewers, we're so conditioned to just buy into that conceit that it allows the creators to surprise us with a detail that's been hiding in plain sight the entire time - "how would we feel about this documentary if we were one of the people being put under the magnifying glass by it?"

AMERICAN VANDAL is smart enough to recognize that confronting these questions doesn't dilute the humor. It takes a braver chances than most shows in its place would have, and doing so keeps them one step ahead of the audience. It is the smartest dick joke I've ever seen and I'm utterly in awe of how the creators have elevated the mockumentary genre to greater heights than I would have assumed possible. I can't wait for season two to surprise me even further.