It's clear that Netflix has quality content, especially in the docu-series department. However, their original American Vandal (2017) has me perplexed. The show is a creative 8-episode mockumentary that unravels its own fictional convoluted plot while poking fun at other true crime documentaries; among others, the most prominent being 2015’s Making a Murderer. From the moment I first saw Vandal's trailer, I had issues with it and here's why...
It trivializes the real true crimes.
Yes, mockumentaries are already a thing. Just look at Christopher Guest's career: Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, and one of my favorites of all-time, This is Spinal Tap. (I also highly recommend Taika Waititi's Real World-meets-Vampires flick, What We Do in the Shadows) Some of the funniest and most successful comedies are fake documentaries, including television series — The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family.
American Vandal is different, though.
Netflix found a huge following with its original, Making a Murderer; a 10-episode series that presented a real person wrestling with real consequences of being accused of murder and the tribulations that come with attempting to prove one's innocence through a web of corrupt authority and economic profiling. I’m at odds, though, when it’s framed as a source of entertainment. It's certainly bingeable, but simply for our pleasure??....
American Vandal — also a Netflix original — directly bounces off of the popularity of Making a Murderer. From the aesthetic and title sequence alone, it's clear that Vandal is trying to be like the real-deal. The story revolves around a high school prankster who claims he's wrongly accused for graffitiing genitalia in the school parking lot. It mirrors Murderer's flow and style to the point where I immediately couldn’t help but question this show’s motives. Murderer challenged the United States' justice system and inspired audiences to sign a petition to release its main subject from prison. It left an actual impact on society… What is Vandal saying?
Recently, Netflix has been releasing true crime documentaries left-and-right —The Keepers, Wild Wild Country and The Staircase to name a few. Now, with the release of Vandal, it's almost as if Netflix is trying to delegitimize the authenticity of them. If not delegitimizing, it's undeniable that it's rejecting the impact and importance of these real events.
A series that safely gets away with farce is Documentary Now!; an episodic mockumentary series that directly parodies critically acclaimed documentaries. However, this show isn't immediately capitalizing off of a "trend."
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, two comedic actors I’m a massive fan of, both star in the show. One of the true crime pieces they spoof is The Thin Blue Line, which famously helped prove a man's innocence in 1989. Since the original film, the man has been freed. He’s already out of the vicious wormhole of accusations. The parody has the cushion of time on its side, in addition to a positive resolution for its main subject… as opposed to Murderer’s inconclusive one.
True crime documentaries conclude with the intention of creating a conversation about change. They unfold actual events in an actual person's life. To then go and create something that looks and feels exactly like it for the mere sake of imitation, to me, just doesn't sit well…
American Vandal has since received positive reviews and even garnered a 2018 Critics Choice nomination.
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