Upon first glance, American Vandal on Netflix (premiering Sept. 15) looks like a real true crime documentary. Investigating further, as we are all trained to do by these kinds of shows, it seems to be a spoof of Making A Murderer... which also aired on Netflix. While the latter is closer to the truth, and American Vandal is self-parody at its finest, the comedy series reveals more about us than we realize.
Netflix practically invented the formula for the modern true crime documentary drama, and now the streaming network is gently mocking itself and its audience for laughs. Though the title may call to mind drama series like American Crime and American Crime Story, all of the true crime elements that you recognize from Netflix shows like The Keepers and Making A Murderer are also there. Series like The Jinx and The People V. OJ Simpson captured national attention as well, and, in an interview with Bustle's Jack O'Keeffe, the creators also cite the French miniseries The Staircase as inspiration. But, mostly, American Vandal keeps it in the Netflix family.
The voice-over narration is serious to the point of monochromatic or melancholy. It's backed with a minimalist, dramatic string instruments score. The show uses "found footage" from disciplinary hearings and cell phones, pieced together with confessional interviews. And, the credits feature cross-cutting between plain images of the town in which American Vandal takes place. Parking lots, red arrows, and scenic B-roll shots feature heavily in both Netflix's Making A Murderer and The Keepers — and the same goes for this new series.
Even the way that American Vandal sets up a protagonist aims to toy with your expectations of a criminal, and then introduces doubt about the suspect's guilt is reminiscent of the Netflix formula in Making a Murderer. Each episode also ends with a little cliffhanger as well to encourage marathon-viewing, so you're on the couch all afternoon trying to get to the end of a made up and utterly silly story. It's the most low stakes crime ever, treated with the utmost seriousness. Whether you really want to solve the fictional mystery, or just want to see what the punchline to this joke is, the effect is the same — you have to keep watching.
“It's human nature to want answers," said Up And Vanished podcast creator Payne Lindsay in an interview with Bustle. "We all want an explanation for the bizarre and gruesome things that happen in the world.”
One of the reasons that American Vandal works so well is that it's parodying the formula with a low stakes crime. This isn't a comedy spoof about a real murder, like NBC's Trial & Error. American Vandal is not making fun of serious subjects; the show is making fun of the viewing experience. The fact that you are able to watch and enjoy a series about spray-painted d*cks in the same way you get hooked on a true story about a horrific circumstance involving real people says more about you than anything else. True crime series may typically rely on the shocking and the grisly, but American Vandal proves that the format of the show is maybe more captivating than the actual content.
Sure, the way that American Vandal breaks the fourth wall and shows its crew members might also remind you of the original Catfish film, and the way it creates doubt might remind you of the Serial podcast, but it's mostly playing with the tropes of its own streaming medium. Netflix has taken our obsession with this genre and turned it into an addiction. Viewers want to solve a mystery, play armchair detective, take a journey with the filmmakers, and stick through the twists to find out what happened. We're hooked regardless of the content of the crime if the production value is there.
It doesn't hurt that Netflix is a lighthearted company. The April Fool's jokes, various Twitter campaigns and replies, as well as the recent "Netflix is a joke" billboard stunt prove as much. The streaming site is willing to make fun of itself.
But this is more than just a simple self-parody, American Vandal is a reflection of us and the way we engage with these stories and make judgements on others based on some director's choices. In the middle of the series, Dylan questions Peter's motives in making this documentary. Is this about clearing the suspect's name, finding the truth, or just developing an explosive and compelling chase? Bustle's Anna Klassen previously explored that this is a complaint with shows like Making A Murderer too. At the end of the day, documentary filmmakers have to make good television. In the case of true crime documentaries, that can sometimes come at the expense of real people features.
In January 2016, the prosecutor of Steven Avery's case claimed that the Netflix documentary left out crucial information and evidence, according to The New York Times. "Of course we left out evidence," MaM filmmaker Laura Ricciardi said at the Television Critics Association in 2016, as reported by Klassen. "We aren't putting on a trial, but a film. We're documentary filmmakers. We're not prosecutors. We set out to examine the criminal justice system and how it's functioning today."
But, MaM could have its very own impact on that function. Liz Banks-Anderson for the University of Melbourne reported that a "Making A Murderer Effect" could change how jurors question a trial in the future, because they are less likely to trust the justice system after engaging with these stories.
Experts say that audiences love true crime because it triggers fear, according to Time writer Scott Bonn who researched this effect, but maybe that's not always the case. There's nothing scary about the story told in American Vandal. It's just another mystery for us to solve. A really intentionally stupid mystery that we can't help but try and solve — even when we're actively being made fun of for taking it so seriously.
We should all feel called out by this parody — though not necessarily in a judgmental way. Well, maybe a little. In the aforementioned interview with Bustle, American Vandal director and co-creator Tony Yacenda said he hopes audiences will "be a little bit more aware of how documentary conventions can manipulate their emotions."
American Vandal uses all of the tactics that made true crime such a popular series in the first place, and we're powerless against it — at least until we recognize that's what's happening in the first place. And, maybe American Vandal can help you reach that conclusion. It may be a show about d*cks, but this d*ck mystery teaches one hell of a lesson.