Polygon is kicking off its best of entertainment series, which will run through the end of December and beginning of January, coming to a finale just before the 2017 Golden Globes. These personal essays will examine the best, most important and weirdest moments that occurred in television, film, streaming and YouTube/Twitch in 2017. Each will examine why the author believes that moment to be one of 2017’s most extraordinary. The series will end with Polygon’s Best of TV and Best of Movies pieces.
Nothing on Netflix captured the internet’s attention faster than American Vandal, a satirical take on the true crime documentary phenomenon that used illustrations of penises to solve the mystery behind one student’s suspension.
It was released in the middle of September to little fanfare, and most Netflix users couldn’t figure out what American Vandal was at first. But the series went from an unknown production by the Funny or Die team to the year’s biggest underdog success story. The eight-episode series followed a team of high school documentarians, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, as they tried to determine who the mastermind was behind one of the worst graffiti attacks at their school: 27 penises drawn on 27 teacher cars.
For the rest of the school, the answer is obvious: Dylan Maxwell. Maxwell is a class clown who can’t stop himself from drawing dicks. While the majority of Maxwell’s classmates are ready to throw the recently expelled Maxwell into the slammer, Maldonado and Ecklund aren’t convinced, and search for the truth.
American Vandal could have been the stupidest thing on Netflix this year, but the genuineness each character has and the dedicated performance each actor brought made the series as serious as it was funny. It was easy to become obsessed with the investigation, seeking out dick theories across the internet as the show continued, but it’s also one of the funniest shows of the year.
Netflix’s bizarrely perfect series accomplished two major feats: it proved satirical comedy can be more than a Saturday Night Live sketch and confirmed that dick jokes, when executed properly, never get old.
American Vandal is juvenile, but it celebrates the notion that high school pranks never go out of fashion. The show never runs away from its silly notion, pretending to be a high-brow piece of entertainment. American Vandal revels in its vulgar one-liners and crude drawings, reminding a worldwide audience that teenage, boyish humor isn’t just for teenage boys.
The series also bears all the characteristics of a good Netflix show. There were very few write-ups of American Vandal anywhere when it first launched. People discovered it for themselves by browsing through Netflix’s homepage trying to find something to watch. From the first episode, it’s clear that American Vandal is meant to be watched as a marathon; if you’re like me, you gobbled up all eight episodes in one day, barely stopping to eat. If you’re also like me, you made your friends and family promise to watch the series, too, going so far as to suggest watching it again with them to ensure they didn’t miss out.
Talk of American Vandal spread like wildfire and, before the end of September, everyone was talking about it. My Twitter feed was flooded with dick theories and testimonies proving Maxwell wasn’t the culprit in the spray-painted penises case as more people caught up with the series.
Netflix shows have always represented a form of obsessiveness; it’s easy to become entrenched in a new series when all episodes are available at once. Streaming on Netflix has led to changes in how we review series, how we treat spoiler culture and, of course, how we enjoy television. Think back to the first few seasons of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Both series may have been 13 hours each, but many made time to watch every episode over the course of one or two days.
A good Netflix series represents a desire to finish it as quickly as possible and talk about it with people after the credits roll on the final episode. The internet television network redefined how series can be enjoyed and there’s no greater proof of that this year than American Vandal. It wasn’t just a series, but a cultural movement; a phenomenon that couldn’t be ignored no matter where you looked.
American Vandal stood apart in a year packed with good television for another very good reason: it’s one of the best depictions of high school in years. American Vandal goes beyond a sociological examination of clique (think Mean Girls) and focuses on what it feels like to go through high school. American Vandal explores every nuanced emotion, the frustration that comes with being treated like a child when you feel like an adult; the shame of not being considered accepted; the fear that who you are in high school will define you for the rest of your life.
It’s easy to empathize with Maxwell, the dick drawing-obsessed, good-hearted jokester, because he’s just looking to be accepted and recognized. There’s a softer side to his character, and as the class clown facade slowly falls away, it’s easy to place yourself in his shoes. American Vandal is a series about embracing your true self and fighting to be accepted for the person you really are — who can’t relate to that?
I went into American Vandal knowing little about it, beyond the premise of dick jokes and a satirical take on Serial. I wasn’t expecting much save for a few laughs. (I will always laugh at a good dick joke.) After close to eight hours, Netflix’s American Vandal left me with a therapeutic sense of rediscovery, facing the nostalgia that often appears alongside high school stories. American Vandal challenged me to remember the life lessons I took away from the four years at a school where we fought to be accepted, even for a day.
One of American Vandal’s most powerful scenes is Maxwell — believing he’s been accepted as the celebrated, redeemed hero among his classmates after it’s proved that he’s not the graffiti artist — watching the documentary that saved him from expulsion. Sitting between people he so desperately wants to call his friends, Maxwell realizes that even now, they’re still laughing at him, not with him, and he’s reminded of how belittled they’ve always made him feel.
American Vandal is #JusticeforDylan and that’s a powerful lesson I couldn’t ignore in 2017.