Vandals, Maniacs and Murderers

 

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While the large number of new broadcast drama series noted in my last blog have continued to occupy my evenings, my daytime viewing of late (on my iMac, in my attic/office) has been enlivened by some of the latest offerings from Netflix, including some productions of true excellence. And, while I continue to watch the things on traditional TV on a weekly basis (out of habit rather than opportunity), I prefer to consume Netflix productions on an episode-per-day basis, usually accompanied by morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

I greatly enjoyed last year’s American Vandal, which won a Peabody Award and which I blogged about when I discovered it that way earlier this year, but I was uncertain whether a second season would work – after all, it was the perfect parody, but that is not something that can be easily repeated. However, two things make American Vandal 2 asimages-1 good, if not even better than season one (though you can never replicate that first feeing of excitement about something truly original). Firstly, it is, as before, very much more than just a parody – once again you get involved with the characters as if it was a straight drama, and this time round there are many more of them, all brilliantly written and portrayed. Secondly, there are more issues being explored, particularly around class and race, and more documentary styles being invoked than just the crime investigation genre, which remains the basis – I could find echoes of such pieces as Mea Maxima Culpa, O.J.: Made in America and Catfish, as well as numerous pieces investigating the background to school shootings. The series even reaches a somewhat sobering and entirely serious conclusion about the lives of adolescents in the era of social media.

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Above all, though, it made me laugh out loud even more than season one and effortlessly maintained the joke over 8 episodes – I do enjoy scatological humour and it doesn’t come purer than this. Indeed, the grossness of much of the humour provides the perfect counterpoint to the growing seriousness of the issues being confronted. Whether the trick can be repeated again is a moot point, but something tells me it is going to be fun finding out. In the meantime, American Vandal 2 is a very strong addition to my running shortlist for the best of 2018.

 

If American Vandal packs itself full of references to prominent documentaries, then Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Maniac does much the same for dramas – unfortunately, though, it is not a parody (as such) and to be constantly thinking about references and influences means this viewer was not really fully engaged by the drama being presented. OK, the bulk of the piece was exploring the psychological state of the characters undergoing experiments with drugs designed to reveal and counteract their deepest problems, and this was conveyed in dream sequences featuring other characters from their lives (shades of The Singing Detective there) but Fukunaga was clearly having too much self-images-3indulgent fun with this. And, while the genres used – gangsters, sci-fi, medieval fantasy and so on – were clearly signposted, I was also aware of too many other styles and tropes employed in recent series: a bit of Mr Robot here, a bit of Fargo there and a bit of The Leftovers everywhere (the series was created by Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville, which was one of the main things that drew me to it in the first place). The main problem was one of balance: while episode one provided an intriguing and involving opening and episode 10 gave us a moving and satisfying conclusion, everything in between was devoted to the drugs trials and fantasy sequences. It was entertaining enough to keep me watching to the end, but I finished up wondering why.

 

No such problem with 22 July (released on Netflix a few days ago): a single drama of just under two and a half hours duration, which gripped from beginning to end – one of those things that is so good, despite its grim subject matter, that you simply give yourself over to it for however long it takes. The subject is the terrorist massacres in Norway committed in 2011 by the right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, in which he used a bomb and guns to kill 77 people, most of them youngsters at a Labour Party summer camp. It is written and directed by Paul Greengrass, who, despite not being Norwegian, was possibly the only person who could do justice to the subject. Following Bloody images-5Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), he has now completed a trilogy of drama-documentaries about horrific events of such magnitude that they are known by the day or date on which they occurred. His cast of Norwegian actors, all speaking English, is quite remarkable – I don’t know how it has gone down in Norway, but it is testament to the power of the direction that this anomaly simply does not register.

 

Greengrass documents the dreadful events of the day in the first half hour of the film. After that, his twin focus is Breivik himself and Viljar Hanssen, a survivor of the attack whose painful rehabilitation after being shot five times and testimony at Breivik’s trial represents the story of all the victims and stands as a metaphor for Norway’s own recovery and defence of its standards and democracy, as do the portrayals of Breivik’s defence lawyer and Viljar’s mother, who is elected mayor of their small town. And, of course, at a time of growing nationalist populism in Europe and beyond, it is very much a tale for our times. Breivik may be behind a locked door, while Viljar stands in a snowy fjord in the final two shots of the film, but the former has a chilling certainty about the cause for which he committed mass murder, while the latter looks troubled and uncertain.

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Once again Greengrass has brought the sensibility he learned in his days of making current affairs television (for Granada’s World in Action), including his trademark use of hand-held cameras, to a drama documentary which convinces as though it were a piece of reportage. Another one for the 2018 shortlist!

 

And, while still on Netflix, next week sees the release of the long-awaited follow up to Making a Murderer. I am looking forward to re-engaging with how the story of Steven Avery has developed in the years since the original series came out, but I do worry that it may prove difficult to take it as seriously as it deserves, so soon after seeing American Vandal 2.

 

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The Awards that Reward

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This evening in New York the 30 winners of the 2017 Peabody Awards, together with two institutions and one individual, will receive their small but highly prestigious trophies at a ceremony on Wall Street. There are no categories, no envelopes and no nominees. We already know who the winners are. The list is here: http://www.peabodyawards.com/stories/story/2017-peabody-award-winners-77th-annual-peabody-30

 

I was fortunate and privileged to serve on the Peabody Board of Jurors from 2011 to 2016 and know well how many hours, days, weeks and months of viewing, discussing and deliberating goes into reducing over 1,200 submissions to the final thirty. It is an exhausting and exhilarating process which always produces a list of titles worth exploring. If, like me, you endured another year of frustrating and mystifying decisions at this year’s Baftas last Sunday, I can recommend you check out the Peabody list. The vast majority of the submissions are American, and this year’s list of winners is even more dominated by US product than in most previous years, but the process of deliberation is so trustworthy that what wins is not really a matter for contention. Unlike the Baftas, where you know what has been chosen over what else in each category and can get upset about it, the Peabody list is simply a collection of great stuff and there is imageslittle point in criticising inclusions or fretting over exclusions – 16 highly-qualified and carefully chosen judges have already done that for us and have agreed unanimously on the outcome.

 

That said, not everything on the list will be to everybody’s taste. When I was on the Board, I was able and obliged to watch everything which received serious consideration. For the last two years, since I left the Board, I have used the list as a totally reliable guide to select what to watch in a crowded market – last year I was particularly knocked out by Louis CK’s Horace and Pete. Not everything on the list is going to be available outside the USA – the fact that material on the PBS website won’t play outside the States is as frustrating as the unavailability of stuff on the BBC i-Player must be to people outside Britain (and it’s done for the same reason). But many of the entertainment and documentary titles can be found on various platforms such as Netflix and Amazon (even some of the PBS stuff) and I have enjoyed watching a number of the things I had not already seen in the past few weeks since the list was announced.

 

First to be published were the documentary winners and I watched Chasing Coral and Newtown on Netflix, which carries the latter despite it being a PBS title from the outstanding Independent Lens series. Newtown is a very moving study of the effects of the Sandy Hook school massacre on the Connecticut community. The documentary I would most like to see, though, is Deej, which I cannot find available anywhere in Britain as yet – hopefully it will come our way some time soon.

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From the entertainment list, published a week later, I checked out Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King on Netflix – a stand-up comedy special which is not only very funny, but truly thought-provoking and well-designed for television presentation. Minhaj is hosting tonight’s ceremony, so it will be fun to see how that works. I also looked at The Marvellous Mrs Maisel on Amazon, but I’m afraid I didn’t get further than the first episode – as I said, not everything appeals to everybody.

 

But there are two things from this year’s list of Peabody winners which have more than re-confirmed my faith in it as the best guide to quality viewing and which I may not otherwise have discovered – one from the documentary list, the other from entertainment, and both available on Netflix. Time: the Kalief Browder Story (Weinstein Television – and, yes, Harvey’s name is even on the credits!) is a documentary series about injustice in the tradition of Making a Murderer. It tells the horrific tale of a Unknown-2young black man whose refusal to plea bargain over an alleged minor felony kept him in the “justice system” for three years, involving incarceration in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison and several lengthy spells in solitary confinement, before his eventual release and exoneration preceded a tragic ending. With extensive forensic interviews and disturbing CCTV footage, the series grips and shocks over six episodes, but it is the nature of the injustices and abuses it uncovers rather than the style of storytelling which makes the greatest impact – and that is just as well, because the other series I am going to describe is such a perfect parody of the genre that it’s going to make it difficult to watch such things in future without thinking about it.

 

I’m certainly glad I watched The Kalief Browder Story before I came across American Vandal (3 Arts/Funny or Die). Taking its cue from series like The Jinx, Making a Murderer and Serial, it is a hilarious genre parody in which two high-school media nerds investigate who was responsible for spray-painting 27 penises on cars in the school staff car park, in an attempt to prove the innocence of the suspended prime suspect. The humour is pitch-perfect, but the joke could not have been stretched across eight episodes if it had not been much more besides. The characters are so well drawn that it works as comedy-drama as well – imagine My So-Called Life re-made in the style of The Office. It also has plenty to say about the nature of documentary truth and the effect of such programming on people’s lives in the age of social media.

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Unfortunately, these being programmes from 2017, neither can go on my running list of the best of 2018, even though I’ve only just caught up with them.  But the latest season of a Peabody winner from 2011 certainly can. I first encountered Homeland (Showtime) as part of my Peabody viewing and it was on the winners’ list in its first season. Despite the fact that it then suffered something of a slump, I have followed it ever since and am delighted that it has been reviving over the past three years: so much so that I think the latest season, just finished on Channel 4, is the best since the first – maybe it’s even better. No other dramatic series manages to keep its finger on the pulse of contemporary events as strikingly as Homeland has done over the past two seasons, which is even more amazing when you consider the lead-in times involved. The current threats to American democracy – Russia, media manipulation, Presidential hubris – are all in there and Carrie’s bi-polar disorder is a perfect metaphor for the divisive nature of current American politics and society.

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Homeland is thus the first American title on my 2018 shortlist, though the best stuff from the States has usually arrived here in the Summer in recent years (see my first blog!), so I’m certain it won’t be the last. And I still have a good deal of catching up to do on Netflix and Amazon (I’m currently enjoying The Looming Tower on the latter). Maybe I’ll have managed to see more of the 2018 Peabody winners, at least in the entertainment section, before the list is published next year. I’ll certainly be awaiting it as eagerly as ever.