Scatology over Seriality: The missed opportunity of the still very good American Vandal season two

VandalBanner

When American Vandal debuted last fall, it was a surprise: the show launched with little fanfare, and read as a sketch concept more than a television series. But if there were any questions about whether a satire of true crime documentaries focused on phallic high school vandalism could sustain a season of television, American Vandal answered them with an affirmative yes. Not only did the series find plenty of humor in the spray-painted dicks and the lead suspect Dylan Maxwell, but it also wove a complex story about the students who were documenting the attempts to exonerate him, eventually landing on some really honestly quite profound observations about both the ethics of true crime investigations and the daily challenge of existing as a high school student in our contemporary moment. That it did so while committing to the verisimilitude of its diegetic social media posts may have been what burrowed it straight into my heart, but the way the series unraveled into a quite meaningful study of adolescence made it one of my favorite shows of last year, and earned it a Peabody Award this Spring.

The idea of a second season came with a new set of questions, however. Although some (wrongly) insist that the first season came to an ambiguous ending, the story of Dylan Maxwell and “Who Drew The Dicks?” ultimately did end, meaning that the show moving forward would need to approach itself as a seasonal anthology series, wherein each season focuses on a different crime. Given that the true crime documentary genre remains incredibly successful, and has various iterations and formats that can be used to fuel further satire, I can see why all parties—Netflix with a successful series with young demos, CBS looking to leverage that success to increase their license fees as the show’s production studio, the producers thinking about ideas and styles they wanted to explore—would be willing to move forward with a second season.

VandalSeason2-1

Photo: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix

American Vandal season two taps into the same ideas that made the first season so surprisingly profound, telling another story about the minefield of modern high school existence told through a juvenile (in this case scatological) criminal act, this time at a Catholic high school in Washington. But in its efforts to try to replicate the success of the first season, the producers decided to retain a key piece of continuity: the men behind the camera, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, who travel to Saint Bernardine High School to produce the second season of American Vandal as their senior project. Given how critical Peter’s choices were in the consequences of the production of the documentary in season one, and how much Peter and Sam’s relationship fueled the later drama in that season, I saw the choice to retain the two filmmakers as an effort to tap into the interconnectivity that made the first season resonate the way it did.

Which is why it was so disappointing when I reached the end of the second season and realized that Peter and Sam might as well have not even been involved.

Continue reading

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under American Vandal

The Peter Kavinsky “Problem”: How building an Internet Boyfriend threatens the sequels to To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

BABW_NewCircleLogo

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is neither the first nor the last teen romantic comedy launched by Netflix this year: it was preceded by The Kissing Booth, and it will be followed next weekend by Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, with all three films sharing an interest in reclaiming a genre that has been increasingly marginalized by major studios.

But whereas The Kissing Booth is an ideological garbage fire that was rightfully criticized for its wonky gender politics (and, on a personal note, a distinct lack of quality control beyond that), To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has elevated Netflix’s “Teen Rom-Com Renaissance” while still replicating the “viral” success of The Kissing Booth that signaled the demand for the genre. By the metric of views of “Cast Content” on YouTube—generated by various magazines and websites that pivoted to video in recent years, along with Netflix itself—the story of Lara Jean Song Covey’s letters and her fake relationship with Peter Kavinsky is generating just as much social chatter as its predecessor, but with closer attention to cinematic style and a far less problematic take on teenage romance. The result has been an almost overwhelming response to the film across social media, as Peter Kavinsky (and by extension actor Noah Centineo) became the internet’s boyfriend, and Netflix has the watercooler media that the film’s target demos will carry with them into the school year.

But for any of this to happen, the film itself needs to create moments that fans want to GIF, and a story that leaves them with an emotional reaction that convinces them to take to social media to change their profile pictures, post their edits, and reorient their online existence around this story and the people involved. And that story owes a lot to the Jenny Han book on which the movie is based, and I do think that the film would be generating a significant response even if it would have just taken the story as it was told and brought these characters to life in the capable and charming hands of Centineo and Lana Condor, who doesn’t get enough credit for her work as Lara Jean. But as I discovered when I dove down the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before rabbit hole over the past two weeks, writer Sofia Alvarez and the film’s producers made a series of conscious choices when adapting the book that engineered the story to maximize this type of response.

They’re also choices that I’d argue make it almost impossible to adapt the rest of the series as it was written.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Netflix

Series Finale: The Americans – “START”

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 12.41.38 AM

I’m Canadian, and thus compelled to use this promotional still of Henry playing hockey, which I remain deeply entertained they released before the finale. Bless you, FX.

I have written about The Americans a single solitary time here at Cultural Learnings, and it was in a review that was more or less about Mad Men.

That’s bizarre to me, but not unexpected: the show debuted in the midst of graduate school, when reviews became more scarce and the blog in general became less of a priority. It was also a show that I, for various reasons, found myself always falling behind on within a given season, such that I often wasn’t current enough to write something even if I had found time or the inclination to say something. And while I’ve been more vocal about my appreciation for the show on my Twitter feed, it still feels weird to have never really tried to grapple with my relationship with the show in this setting.

I’m not going to try to encapsulate the entire series in this review, or else I’d be up all night. But I did want to briefly capture why “START” is such a compelling entry into the pantheon of serialized drama finales, despite in some ways departing from tradition. While far from the cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos, The Americans still works against many of the instincts of contemporary drama storytelling, and in doing so managed to reinforce and strengthen my connection to these characters that’s existed even if I’ve never quite put it into words.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under The Americans, Uncategorized

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 1.38.30 PM

[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.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under American Vandal

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

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 1.38.08 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 12.49.51 AM.png

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.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Music

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.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Music

Serving Fans (Notice): The End of Skam

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 1.21.02 PM

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.

Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under Skam