It’s details, not dicks, that make American Vandal a masterpiece

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[The following contains some light plot spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s American Vandal, with more specific spoilers in the observations at the end.]

Nothing about the premise of American Vandal prepares you for American Vandal. It is easy, even once you flip to Netflix and start watching the show, to imagine it to be the ultimate fool’s errand: yes, true crime documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer are inviting subjects for parody, but an eight-episode series about an investigation into spray-painted dicks?

There are elements of American Vandal—including most of the clips featured in the show’s trailer—that are what you would expect from a short sketch on this topic: aesthetic tropes of shows like Making a Murderer or The Keepers carefully recreated, but this time about lewd vandalism and lakeside handjobs. And for the most part these jokes are pretty funny, and helped by the fact that everyone involved is taking this so seriously. The show commits to the thoroughness of those investigations despite the inherently shallow nature of the crime in question, and that commitment never wavers, which is the central joke of the piece. At one point, Peter—the documentarian—explains what he’s doing to someone consulting on the legal elements of the case, and an outside observer remarks on the stupidity of the project, and it’s funny because it’s true.

But where American Vandal succeeds is in the fact it isn’t actually about #WhoDrewTheDicks, conceptually speaking. Yes, the fact that its characters are earnestly investigating graffiti genitalia is a joke, but the characters themselves are not turned into a joke in the process. The majority of the show finds its storytelling outside of the inciting incident, cobbling together glimpses of high school life grounded in realism despite being predicated on penises. And for a show with such an absurd premise, American Vandal shows a deft hand at capturing the nuances of teenage life, providing a strikingly authentic portrait of the mediated world of its subjects that builds to a closing sentiment that both pokes fun at the likes of S-Town while also tapping into their emotional power.

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No One Made Her Do This: The Trouble With Taylor Swift Tix

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When Taylor Swift debuted her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” it came with an intriguing link to “ticket info.” And so while I was listening to the single, I started digging around on Swift’s website looking for information about a tour that logically won’t be starting until sometime next year. And then I stumbled across this video, which explained why there was such an early mention of tickets.

At first, I presumed the video was simply a way for Taylor to announce that she was following the lead of other artists and using Ticketmaster Verified Fan, a new service designed to help combat ticket bots that keep real human beings from seeing shows at face value. But as the video continued beyond the explanation about the evils of ticket bots, the video takes a turn.

A “new way of buying tickets?” Perfect!

A “better way of buying tickets?” Wonderful!

A “fun way of buying tickets?” Uhhhh…what?

And then it’s made clear that “Taylor Swift Tix” is not just about making sure that bots don’t buy all of the tickets: instead, it allows you to login and “have the opportunity to participate in unique activities that advance your spot in line.” And these activities are not just fun games that help you kill the time: as evidenced in the video, they are inherently commercial ativities, including pre-ordering her album, buying merchandise from the record, and streaming the single’s lyric video.

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These are all things that the most devoted Taylor Swift fans would likely do anyway. But by “game-ifying” the concert ticket purchasing process by way of the transactional economies of the music industry, Swift is doing something she was fundamentally not “made” to do: while the move to a Verified system is a positive one, the other choices create clear incentives for her wealthiest fans, and sacrifice any type of egalitarian system in favor of a shrewd financial gambit that is 100% gross and 1000% genius.

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Erasing Herself From The Narrative: Taylor Swift and the absence of intimacy in the launch of Reputation

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 8.44.44 AMBeginning in 2010 with Speak Now, Taylor Swift album releases have been an “event”: in an age where prominent artists often struggle to clear 200,000 units in their opening weeks, Swift’s last three albums have all sold over one million copies in their first week. When Red released in 2012, it came with Papa John’s tie-ins and intense cross-branding with Target, the latter of which continued with the launch of 1989 two years later. Although Swift’s sound would change over the course of these records, gradually phasing out her country roots, the calculus of the album launches largely remained the same.

However, while these albums have undoubtedly been major music industry events supported by robust and organized marketing campaigns, they’ve never actually been positioned as such by Swift herself when they were first announced. Instead, they were debuted with a conscious effort to frame these albums as gifts to her fans as opposed to gifts to music retailers, utilizing the power of the internet to create intimacy between artists and their audience.

And so it was striking that when Swift’s most recent album cycle—delayed by a year—started this week, it began with the erasure of her social media history, a symbolic act reflective of the focus implied by the album’s title—Reputation—but also fundamentally at odds with the way she has launched three mega-successful albums in the past. And so even before she releases her first single, she’s announcing a marked departure over the way she understands her mediated presence, giving up the form of control she had previously but replacing it with another type of control that may mark a fundamental shift in the way she connects to her audience.

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Serving Fans (Notice): The End of Skam

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Skam has always been made in service to its audience.

In the beginning, this was an abstract statement: Skam existed as a way of fulfilling the public service mission of NRK, specifically aimed at younger viewers. It was a fictionalized glimpse of what it was like to live as a Norwegian teenager circa 2015, grounded in realism and focused on reaching teens on the platforms where they spend their time while also interrogating—but not demonizing—how those platforms are shaping their experiences.

But once the show began airing, its audience left the realm of abstraction. They became real viewers, drawn to Skam for any number of reasons: whether it was the commitment to realism, the ability to relate to the characters, investment in relationships, or obsession with the transmedia release schedule that keeps you constantly on edge waiting for the next piece of the story, Skam became a hit, first in Norway and then in countries around the world thanks to the work of fan translators and the wonders of streaming video and Google Drive. Suddenly, a show designed as a service to Norwegian teenagers generally defined became a service to an expanding global audience, a diverse and complex fanbase with expectations distinct from the public service mandate at the core of the project.

In this transition, “service” starts to shift in meaning. There is “public service,” where the show began, but there is also “fan service,” as well as the need to “serve” the story being told, and the characters brought to life over the course of the series. Suddenly, as Skam entered what was announced as its final season, it was being made in service of all of these ideas, forced to balance competing—or at the very least overlapping—goals in the process.

I’ve written a lot about Skam’s fourth season: I predicted some of the challenges facing the show’s attempt to find resolution, I broke down how the season struggled with plot but succeeded with character, and I spent the past week reviewing the shifting POV structure as the final clips were released. But although I offered some thoughts on “Dear Sana,” the finale clip released yesterday, its final moments represent something more than just a connective thread to the clips that came in the final week, or even the final season. It was an effort to clearly state the central themes of Skam, which have been consistent from the beginning of the series but manifest here with a new twist: this time, they aren’t just an abstract idea deployed to serve a mandate, but rather an explicit idea that the finale deploys not just as a tribute to the story and its characters, but as a targeted message to its fanbase—and not necessarily just the love letter you might expect.

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P-O-V / Shifts in Fi-nal-e: Skam Season 4, Episode 10

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Season 4, Episode 10

June 23, 2017

[With its final week, Skam is adjusting its format to shift perspective on a daily basis, moving between a range of supporting characters to bring the show to its conclusion. Given the promise of daily clips, I’ve decided to review each clip as it is released, with a final reflection on the week and the series as a whole to follow over the weekend. You can find the rest of my reviews of this season’s episodes here.]

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“Vilde”

The choice to start with Vilde is an easy one: she is the character who was most likely to have a POV-season who will never get one, given how the show has played with the vulnerabilities she hides from her friends. Her eating disorder was built into season two through Noora’s observations of it, and what we’ve gleaned of her home life has seemed challenging. There is clearly a season’s worth of material in understanding Vilde, whose ignorance has always come alongside surface-level insecurities distinct from the more guarded POV characters.

Perhaps this is why Vilde never got a POV season: it was always evidently clear that Vilde was never truly “chill,” and thus there wasn’t necessarily a façade to break down in the way we saw with the other characters. Learning that Vilde is struggling to take care of her depressed mother helps put parts of the character into context, but it doesn’t really transform our understanding of the character, or push the show into new territory (especially given it’s not dissimilar to Isak’s relationship with his mother, although the show never explored that directly). In making the choice for the final season, Sana offered a richer thematic palette, while Vilde offers a tragic but perhaps a bit rote take on a teenager forced to be the responsible adult in the wake of mental illness.

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Sana Shares a Season: Skam Season 4, Episode 9

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Season 4, Episode 9

June 16, 2017

Season four was never just Sana’s season.

From the moment Julie Andem announced that season four would be the end of Skam, the expectation was clear: if this was going to be the end of this story, then there was to be resolution for the entire cast, especially the point-of-view characters from previous seasons. In advance of the season, I identified the challenges this presented, and watched as season four played out in acknowledgment of those difficulties. For better or worse, season four was designed to address these complications, engineered in order to use the point-of-view structure to deliver on what Andem believed was necessary to bring this story to a close.

What season four became was a season that featured a lot of what makes Skam distinctive, with many great scenes of observational drama and introspection. However, it was also a season that struggled to stay in these moments, often forced to abandon the isolationist storytelling of previous seasons in favor of “plot” for the first time in its run. Sana’s character had a clear model for a Skam season: only she understood the struggles of balancing her faith and her friends, and the struggles of negotiating her religion while wanting to be a part of Norwegian culture. But while these themes became the anchor of season four, and the source of its best moments, they were not simply captured within the day-to-day experiences of life in Oslo—they were instead filtered through those numerous melodramas, pulling the show away from what it does best often enough to justify covering more narrative ground in anticipation for the series’ conclusion.

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Happy “Ending”: Skam Season 4, Episode 8

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Season 4, Episode 8

June 9, 2017

If there was ever any doubt that Skam would have a happy ending, I think this past week’s clips removed it.

There was a significant amount of drama heading into this week: Sana was holding considerable secrets, and harboring resentment and guilt in equal measure. As the week progressed, she revealed her secret to Chris, and then eventually (accidentally) to Eva: she had been the one to create the account, and create the chain reaction of bullying. By mid-week, Chris basically told her that her friends were reevaluating their perspective on her, and she went to a meeting with Sara and Ingrid and the rest of the bus believing that her friends had abandoned her. It’s a definitively low moment.

And then the Girl Squad rolls up in a bus (or van, rather) just for them, Los Losers taped onto the side, celebrating Sana and welcoming her back into the fold. The Pepsi Max girls are left to watch as they drive off, happy and smiling and just generally elated. And when we get to Eva’s birthday, everyone is there: the Girl Squad, the Boy Squad, and the Balloon Squad have all come together, and are happily playing croquet with no evidence of any of the drama that had unfolded between them outside of a brief moment where Magnus makes insecure small talk with Elias.

And I will be frank: I call bullshit.

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