True crime documentaries, for all their popularity, come with controversies. Questions about the bias and ethics of the journalism that underpinned series like Making A Murderer or Serial raged around their releases, the internet swiftly becoming permeated with think pieces arguing for or against the moral merits of the show in question.
Earlier this year S-Town, not strictly a true crime series despite taking its cues from the storytelling style of one, starkly divided people about the ethics of how it represented its fascinating central character, John B.Macklemore, and whether series host Brian Reed had any right to make public the revelations he unearthed. A couple of years ago, Jay Wilds, the star witness in the case against Serial subject Adnan Syed, gave a long, bitter interview about the negative impact the podcast had on his life. Making A Murderer was hit by accusations that it deliberately toned down aspects of Steven Avery’s character in order to make him more sympathetic to the viewer. Basically, it’s impossible to make a series about living people without some of those people taking issue with the way in which real lives have been depicted.
It’s a fascinating moral issue; Serial, S-Town and Making A Murderer can be argued to have brought public attention to unjust legal cases, but in doing so they unquestionably upset the lives of many people who probably would have preferred to have been left in peace. And while it’s valid to suggest that the upset was worth the exposure of injustice, the issue becomes muddier when you consider that these series are uniformly consumed the same way people would Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones; as riveting, binge-worthy entertainment that happens to have the added allure of being real. Any suggestion of this being merely a by-product of the journalistic exercise flies out the window in the face of the ways in which these shows are produced; S-Town for example, ends its second episode by making a horrifying tragedy into a shocking cliff-hanger designed to bring you back for more. These series are designed as entertainment, and whatever one thinks of the ethical side of it, they certainly work as such. It’s the reason they’re so popular.
That popularity was sooner or later going to invite parody, and so along comes American Vandal. The story centres on Dylan Maxwell, a high school senior generally known as an idiot and trouble maker, who is accused of drawing dicks on the cars of 27 teachers. To the school board it’s an open and shut case; Dylan has a well documented history in this area and frankly, his expulsion isn’t going to be a crippling blow to a school that generally treats him with eye-rolling derision. However when budding documentarian Peter Maldonado takes a closer look at the case, several things don’t quite add up. And so, with the kind of straight-faced seriousness usually reserved for explorations of murders, Peter sets out to prove Dylan’s innocence.
The most striking thing about American Vandal in its early going is the fact that it’s not that funny. There are chuckles in the forensic detail applied to differentiate Dylan’s signature penises from the ones adorning the cars of the targeted teachers, or else in the sheer stupidity of the filmed pranks that Dylan thinks will make him famous one day (basically he runs up to babies, farts on them, then runs away) but it’s not quite as absurd as you’d think and pretty quickly American Vandal establishes itself as a series with actual stakes; for all his frat-boy stupidity we get the sense that Dylan is a fairly sweet guy and his expulsion could ruin his future. The show makes us care, and that is the earliest sign that the might be something more than a Scary Movie for Serial fans.
Considering this series has to sustain eight episodes, its relative seriousness probably should have been obvious; it probably wasn’t going to fill all of that time with dick jokes, but what is especially surprising about the show is just how much it has on its mind. Due to the fact that its central characters aren’t, y’know, real, American Vandal can do things that the properties it’s spoofing can’t, like delving into the reactions of the people who become fodder for Peter’s ambitious project. Unlike the journalists of Serial or S-Town Peter isn’t an external party; he is exposing the lives and loves of his peers, and the moments where he is called out are as satisfying as they are cringe-worthy.
Part of this is down to the fact that the characters in American Vandal feel, as far as a generally comedic show goes, realistic and natural enough to make their hurt feelings and dumbfounded anger at Peter ring true. A particularly savvy move on the part of the show is having the episodes we’ve been watching be released online in the universe of the series, meaning that the people who inhabit them get to see and react first-hand to their depictions. If somebody you thought was a friend revealed your secrets to the world in the interests of helping out a guy nobody likes very much, just how would you feel?
People’s general lack of concern about Dylan creates another painful theme; how worthwhile is exonerating somebody if in doing so you reveal to them how poorly regarded they are by everyone around them? The brilliance of this show is that, in a lower stakes way, it gives us a glimpse into what it must be like to be an Adnan Syed or Tyler Goodson; essentially turned into a character for people’s entertainment despite the fact that you are a real person with a real life and real feelings. It puts the ethics of true crime series under a stark microscope, and in the process builds to an ending that is as unexpected as it is inevitable and tragic.
To say more would be to spoil the things that make this series surprising, clever and ultimately moving, but at its heart American Vandal is about the ways that peoples’ perception of us can shape our reality. After all, if everybody is convinced you are a certain way then what’s the point of trying to prove them wrong? And if that becomes public in a way that turns the perceptions of your peers into the perceptions of the larger world then it becomes that much harder to be anything other than what people expect you to be.
The thing about documentaries is that it’s impossible to remove bias from the equation; any time we tell a story we shape it to achieve its desired effect and in the case of true stories often this means emphasising some aspects and downplaying others in order to depict something that might not quite line up with the perceived reality of your story’s subject. Even if we think we’re approaching a story from a neutral standpoint it’s impossible to remove our personal feelings on the matter from the way in which we present events. It speaks to the power and pitfalls of telling true stories; our empathy with a subject can mean that an otherwise untold tale finally reaches the audience it deserves, but you always run the risk of presenting something that is at odds with how the subject would have depicted it themselves.
Like BoJack Horseman before it, the brilliance of American Vandal lies in the way it subverts our expectations, luring us in with the promise of one thing, delivering on that promise but swiftly going darker, deeper, smarter and more profound than we could have guessed. I started American Vandal chuckling, I ended it lying awake, staring at the roof, my mind racing as I thought about how thoroughly it had floored me and how I was still yet to fully digest all the things it had to say.
It’s for this reason that I strongly believe American Vandal should not have another season. The creators have already discussed covering a different case in a second year, but honestly I struggle to see how there would be any value in this. Part of the power of American Vandal lies in the strength of its final moments, and, to risk saying too much, the journey this series took its characters on would be entirely undermined if there was another chapter. As it stands it’s a blistering, intelligent, and altogether ambivalent dissection of true crime narratives that also manages to fit in universal themes about perception, growing up, journalistic integrity, betrayal and justice. Along with lots and lots of dick jokes.
I mentioned BoJack Horseman before for a reason; not since that series has something come so out of left-field and been so much more than the sum of its parts. American Vandal is one of the most refreshing, fascinating and thought-provoking pieces of television I’ve seen this year. To say it has no right to be this good is disingenuous; this is a case of a show that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to say from its opening seconds. It’s just clever enough to ensure that we don’t realise until the ride is over.
Read the full Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine right here!