Tag Archives: Netflix

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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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Adapting Skam: Television or “Television?” [Part Two]

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Television or “Television?”

Part Two

[This is the second post in a five-part series about the pending U.S. adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam. You can find the other parts of the series here, as well as my other posts about Skam here.]

In the era of “Peak TV,” there is no shortage of homes for television programming: while not all shows fit in all networks, channels, or streaming services, there are more options for more types of scripted series than ever before.

Skam is not a normal television show, however. Although it is ostensibly a once-weekly drama series as broadcast on NRK, it is primarily a transmedia webseries, distributed and consumed online through the NRK website. This is a crucial part of the format, allowing the show to build anticipation and suspense among its users, as well as reach a generation who is historically watching less and less linear television as their viewing moves to mobile devices.

Skam is built for an era where television content is inextricably linked to the internet, and for an audience that increasingly watches content online: accordingly, there are a wide range of options for its future as television channels become more deeply invested in online streaming, and as internet companies move increasingly into content production. However, all options present challenges compared to the free, open access model established by NRK, which—as noted in part one—is likely impossible in a commercial environment. Even before we consider the cultural challenges of adapting Skam, the industrial challenges are themselves something any adaptation would be forced to navigate.

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13 Reasons Why is a teen show built for Netflix, for better or worse

13ReasonsKeyArtLast week, media scholar Casey McCormick posted a piece at Flow—where I have also been contributing during this most recent cycle—based on her research into Netflix, with a specific interest in the way they tell stories. I saw her present some of this research last week, and at the heart of it is an interest in what she terms “Netflix Poetics.” While this can take many forms, at Flow McCormick narrows in one element wherein many series “tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling,” citing the use of voiceover or direct address in shows like House of Cards or Narcos.

I was thinking a lot about the idea of “Netflix Poetics” as I watched 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s most recent drama series, and the second this year that we could call “Young Adult” programming after A Series of Unfortunate Events. But whereas that series adapts a dark but ultimately whimsical set of children’s books, 13 Reasons Why—developed by Brian Yorkey with Tom McCarthy as the director of the opening episodes—taps into the very real tragedy of Jay Asher’s novel about a teenage girl who commits suicide, and the tapes she leaves behind to call out those she holds responsible. Channeling the type of issue-focused storytelling that’s characterized shows like Canada’s Degrassi, and which emerges more sporadically in teen programming on U.S. cable channels like MTV and Freeform, 13 Reasons Why offers an unflinching consideration of the social problems that would leave someone like Hannah Baker to take their own life.

I have a lot of thoughts about 13 Reasons Why, but more than any other Netflix series all those thoughts are caught up in the fact that it is a Netflix series. Based on both the narrative it presents and the way it chooses to tell that story, both the good and the bad of the show feel inseparable from the context of its distribution. It is a show that feels like it might have only been able to do what it does on Netflix while simultaneously feeling like it encapsulates some of the pitfalls of the rigidity of the Netflix model and its associated expectations. It is a show that is brutally honest about the struggles teenagers face today in ways that are refreshing and important, while simultaneously positioning itself to appeal to the cynical binge culture that Netflix increasingly relies on its original programming to construct.

It is also ultimately very good, and well worth your time, but I want to focus on how it represents a meaningful case study of the distinctiveness of Netflix’s original programming on the level of both the text itself as well as its distribution.

[The following will contain light spoilers for the entire first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]

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Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

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Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.

Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.

But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?

And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?

[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]

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