American Vandal and Galaxy Quest: Parody
If you haven’t watched either season of American Vandal on Netflix, this post will be very short: don’t read anything else about it, and go watch it! It’s fabulous, and hilarious, and thought-provoking in a way that a dick joke often isn’t.
If you’re not sold, first take a couple minutes to watch the trailer for Making a Murderer, then immediately watch the Season 1 trailer for American Vandal. Then don’t read anything else about it, and go watch it!
Watched it already? Keep reading.
In order for something to be a good parody, it has to follow the format of the piece it’s parodying as closely as possible. This is not just style (although getting the stylistic flourishes right is the first thing people will look for); it is also about taking the story and characters as seriously as the straight piece does. Take, for example, Galaxy Quest, a delightful send-up of Star Trek that includes as many Star Trek-esque moments as possible (aliens who look like humans with forehead makeup, grand shots of the spaceship with swelling orchestral music, officers repeating what the computer says, corridors with swinging mechanisms that exist for no other reason than to impede the protagonists).
However, Galaxy Quest also presents a plot that an actual Star Trek episode might feature. In this case, it’s aliens who have learned about a human subculture through television broadcasts, which is similar to the episodes “Pattern of Force” (with Nazism) and “Bread and Circuses” (with the Roman Empire) in the original Star Trek. While Galaxy Quest presents this in a delightfully meta way by having the subculture itself be Star Trek fandom, it nonetheless plays the beats straight.
American Vandal does all of this for true crime documentaries. It includes the voiceover narration, the uber-serious music, the timeline graphics, the grainy footage, the conflicting interviews, etc., all played very straight to the point of absurdity, as the “crimes” are dick drawings and poop pranks. AV also presents us with a legitimately constructed mystery to solve each season, plotted with the meticulous attention to detail that any real crime documentary would take. Even if you don’t find the subject matter funny in any way, you can still watch AV solely for the pleasure of solving the mystery amid all the clues, theories, and red herrings (writes one reviewer: “I was genuinely so invested in the elaborate web of evidence being presented that I’m not joking when I say I’d love American Vandal even if all the comedy was removed”)
But that’s not all.
In order for something to be a great parody, it can’t simply be funny and also take itself seriously. Truly great parodies include themes and stories that are as thought-provoking as anything you might see from a “serious” piece. Galaxy Quest snuck in a story about its main characters overcoming selfishness, self-doubt, and hero-worship, even as the fazers (legally not the same as Star Trek’s phasers) flashed. AV, without getting into spoilers, has some very serious things to say about the human impulse to rush to judgment, about the persistence of memory (or lack thereof), about the casual cruelty that humans foist on one another in their search for their own self-esteem, about the dangers of growing up in a world of social media, and about the hubris of believing you know the whole story.
And it does it while still making hilarious dick jokes.