Monday, October 22, 2018

Mockumentary ethics or "American Vandal director Peter Maldonado is a dick"

A fun feature of the mockumentary genre is that we're often watching a reality that has been specifically shaped and crafted by one of the player in that reality. From Marty Di Burgi in THIS IS SPINAL TAP to Taylor Gentry in BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON, most mockumentaries can't resist showing us the person behind the camera. In the cases of those two films and many like it, the result is to portray an interloper in the world they're exploring. It provides someone who can react to the eccentricity of the subjects of the documentary.

But this also means that every thing we see on screen was left in purposefully by the observer we often see on screen. That means a smart mockumentary filmmaker will be constantly asking themselves, "What is the director saying by choosing to show this? What's their agenda? What does this choice reveal about them?"

The trick is that when we're watching a "finished" mockumentary, we don't know what the ostensible director chose to leave out. A problem child getting a "villain edit" could be a total asshole in "real" life, or he could just be the victim of a hatchet job. It's hard for the viewer to perceive the intent unless the hatchet job gets heavy-handed enough that the film communicates "this director has a bias."

This possibility is one of the things that fascinates me the most about mockumentaries. Surely there are a number of examples in the genre where the filmmakers don't want us to be aware of the invisible hands behind the camera. (Many Christopher Guest films fall under this classification.) But when done right, it can add an extra layer of depth.

The first season of AMERICAN VANDAL didn't forget about this. Presented as a student-produced documentary, the show followed two filmmakers efforts to determine who was responsible for a vulgar act of vandalism. In presenting and discarding suspects, filmmaker Peter Maldonado often disseminated or verified embarrassing rumors and dug into personal lives of his classmates to an embarrassing degree.

One revealing moment came in episode 4 of season one when Peter and his collaborator Sam conceded that they both fit the profile of the perpetrator. As they had done a deep dive on the pros and cons of other suspects, Peter and Sam each produced a segment on the other. Sam blows it off as a joke, producing a segment with voiceover that goes, "Could Peter Maldonado have done the dicks? He's never done anything else wrong in his life. He had perfect attendance last year. He's a total puss. So, could he have drawn the dicks? No, no, no, he couldn't have, no. Again, no."

Peter, on the other hand, takes the gloves off, brutally outing Sam's crush on his friend Gabi and suggesting that Sam might have done the prank out of jealousy, hoping to get prom canceled because he didn't want Gabi to go with Brandon Galloway. Peter doesn't pull any punches in using embarrassing evidence of Sam's crush, either. At one point he shows Sam took 32 selfies before he found the perfect casual one to send to Gabi. It would be a savage embarrassment for Peter to do this segment on any classmate, but that he does it to a best friend AND keeps it in the documentary after Sam gets pissed about it... well, it kinda shows us who Peter is, doesn't it?

Peter is equally insensitive when debunking another theory that centers on Sarah Pearson's hookup list. While initially it seems like it might be part of a chain of evidence that exonerates Dylan Maxwell, it's soon revealed as a dead-end red herring. Peter could have told his story without putting Sarah and others "on blast." In the final episode of the season, Sarah actually confronts Peter about it, telling him, "Your documentary fucked with people's lives... What did my hookup list have to do with the truth? It didn't prove anything. It had nothing to do with Dylan. It was just humiliating. My dad saw it, Peter."

Here's what's interesting - Peter leaves that confrontation in. It's a moment where he comes off terribly, but he doesn't try to hide it. You might think that means he's learned his lesson. Maybe he even felt he deserved it. Either way, you would hope that such a call-out would merit self-reflection.

And then season 2 of AMERICAN VANDAL shows Peter to be just as callous a dick as before. Again, when examining suspects and their motives, Peter goes for the jugular. One student recently suffered severe embarrassment when photos of him wearing a diaper and baby bonnet were leaked online. This plot point turns out to be somewhat important to the resolution, but Peter probably had ways of addressing it without re-humiliating the poor student. Instead, Peter goes for the shock value, probably showing more than is necessary and delivering this humiliation to a much wider audience than just the teen's classmates.

That's something else to consider. As seriously as Peter took his duty as a filmmaker in season one, at the time he had no reason to think it would ever be seen by anyone outside of his school. There's a very thin defense he could mount that no one beyond those depicted in the documentary would ever care to watch it. But after AMERICAN VANDAL became a viral hit, season 2 informs us that the first season was a Netflix sensation before Peter even started work on his follow-up.

So he knew there was anticipation for the next run of the series. He knew there was a wider global audience that would see this, and he put it all in without a second thought.

Peter learned nothing. And I love that the show committed to that. It makes us reevaluate his decision to keep in his callout from Sara Pearson. Did he think it made him look like the victim? Did he put it in to use as a shield against attacks that he manipulated the editing? Does it help him feel honest and objective if his own documentary calls him out, and is doing that an even greater act of manipulation on his part?

Peter produces compelling documentaries, but a subtext running through them is that he doesn't really connect to people. He sees himself in the mold of an investigative reporter or documentarian, with everyone else just being a player in the drama that unfolds, collateral damage by their very nature. In pursuit of the truth, he'll punish anyone who presents a threatening counternarrative. (Think of how relentlessly Alex Trimboli is shredded by the documentary in season one.)

This is perhaps too meta, but I feel like the next season needs to put Peter's ethics on trial somehow. The groundwork has been laid over two seasons, and while he's gotten pushback, it's been fairly timid (at least, Peter has portrayed it as such.) In the world of the show, Peter has two popular documentaries out there. That's more than enough time for some serious consequences to result from one of them.

Peter Maldonado has shown us who he is, and AMERICAN VANDAL has shown us they know who he is. It's a grenade just waiting to be armed and I am HERE for it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

AMERICAN VANDAL and teenage lonliness

"Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

That was the thesis statement of the season 3 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled "Earshot." Last month, this episode turned 19 years old and yet in many respects it still remains one of the most accurate commentaries on the high school experience. The episode itself has an interesting history. It was originally slated to run on April 27, 1999, but seven days earlier, two teenagers killed 12 of their classmates and two teachers in a massacre at Columbine High School. Suddenly The WB was very nervous that the next episode of Buffy featured Buffy sensing one of her classmates was planning to kill everyone and racing against time to stop a mass casualty event at school.

The fact that the character remarked directly on the rise of school shootings and Oz quipped, "It's bordering on trendy at this point" might have also played a part in the network decision to hold the new episode until just before the start of Season 4.

Buffy as a series got a lot of mileage out of its conceit that "High school is hell." For the first three years, most of the random demon-of-the-week stories were metaphors for typical teenage drama. One of the more effective examples was when Buffy lost her virginity to Angel and the moment of "perfect happiness" broke the curse that forced a soul on the vampire. The result was an unleashed Angelus, ready to do evil and eager to break Buffy's heart and mess with her head. Joss Whedon is often quoted as saying that female viewers would tell him, "The same thing happened to me." They related to the core analogy which was, "I slept with him and he got mean."

Given that kind of identification with teenage pain was central to the show's appeal, it's odd how few shows have run with that ball in the decade and a half since BUFFY left the airwaves. Most teen dramas decided to be aspirational, about cool people with cool clothes and cool lives. Half of the characters on ONE TREE HILL were celebrities of some breed - singer, fashion designer, pro basketball player - and many of the others were leading successful lives. GOSSIP GIRL was set in a world of wealth and privilege that rarely explored real high school dynamics, and 90210 wasn't much different. You might make a case for PRETTY LITTLE LIARS dealing with some of this, but it was again a show about extremely pretty people with expensive clothes and a lot of relationship drama with other people. It seemed no one wanted a show about teenage pain, at least not on network TV.

Enter Netflix. Their first foray into modern high school drama was 13 REASONS WHY. I've written at length about that show in many other posts you can find on this site. Though the season 2 drama gets much more heightened, season one was one of the more realistic explorations of high school bullying, and all the emotional body blows that today's teens face. It's weird to realize my high school experience has more in common with the world of THE WONDER YEARS than that of 13 REASONS WHY, but concepts like cyber-bullying didn't even exist when I graduated 20 years ago. Some of what Hannah Baker faces is relatable to any high school graduate. There have always been people victimized by bad rumors and reputations that were forced on them. Certain sexual assault is nothing new even if our ways of raising awareness are different.

Teenage trauma was the core story of 13 REASONS WHY, so viewers were primed to expect that journey. What's more impressive is how a series that spent its first season on an 8-episode dick joke and then came back for season 2 with an equally prolonged poop joke turns out to be an even more incisive portrait of contemporary teens. AMERICAN VANDAL is many things. It's a brilliantly executed mockumentary that scores off of the modern hunger for true crime stories, it's an incredibly funny show that achieves laughs both base and intelligent, it's an amazing showcase for fresh-faced talent.

And it is the most serious look at the loneliness of adolescence.

If you haven't seen AMERICAN VANDAL's second season, I'll warn you that I'm about to spoil the ending.

In the final episode we learn that "The Turdburgler" is a previously-expelled student who catfished dozens of students and teachers at his school as part of a revenge plot. Not every student took the bait, but those who did believed they were in a relationship with the woman whom The Turdburgler presented themselves as, using stolen pictures and video. In doing so, he enticed many of them to send compromising pictures and videos, which were later used to blackmail four of them into participating in the four Turdburgler pranks.

To our shock, those four victims include not only prime suspect Kevin McClain, who is something of a performative weirdo and the kind of lonely person you'd expect to fall for it, but also Big Man on Campus DeMarcus Tillman, the basketball superstar who seemingly could be friends with anyone. It's a good lesson that even the popular kids feel like they're wearing a mask at school. Their popularity isn't always a cure for loneliness. Indeed, it can be isolating. Students want to be close to DeMarcus because he is the best... but he always has to wonder in the back of his mind... do they like him for him?

For DeMarcus to form what he believed was a genuine emotional bond with someone he never met speaks to both the loneliness he felt and he nature of online connection. My generation was just getting online around the time we started high school and college, but these kids have grown up in a world dominated by this sort of social media connectivity. Online life is real, particularly in an emotional sense.

DeMarcus couldn't find that intimate connection in person. It was only with the distance of talking to a stranger online that he felt he could show his "real self." With that vulnerability came the expectation the person he was talking to was being equally vulnerable.

Some of the catfish victims are persuaded to do truly humiliating things. When the truth comes out, some of their classmates are likely unsurprised because, yes the theater nerd and the strange "Fruit Ninja" are exactly the kind of people to be duped by an "online girlfriend." A lesser show would have left it at that, but it's AMERICAN VANDAL that finds the insight BUFFY did all those years ago. The creators recognize that some teenage trials are universal and that few teens recognize others' pain because they're focusing too much on their own.

This is why AMERICAN VANDAL resonates beyond being a silly diversion where a school is attacked with laxatives. It tries to reflect the truth of teenage life, knowing that audience identification and investment with the characters will run that much deeper. It's a show that gets under your skin by poking at the sides of themselves that the audience tries to hide.

Show your audience something in themselves they don't want anyone to see and I guarantee they'll follow you. In fact, they'll probably be unable to do anything else.