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‘American Vandal,’ ‘Mindhunter,’ and Netflix’s True Crime Discourse

With addictive docs and incisive dramas, Netflix both satiates and complicates our appetite for true crime.
American Vandal Mindhunter Netflix
By  · Published on February 27th, 2018

With addictive docs and incisive dramas, Netflix both satiates and complicates our appetite for true crime.

Netflix is acutely aware of viewers’ growing appetite for true crime content, and it’s spent the past few years cultivating programming that caters to the recent true crime craze. Now, the streaming giant is one of the premier destinations for true crime content, boasting an assortment of true crime films, series, and documentaries. In 2015, Netflix made its first significant leap into the genre and released the documentary series Making a Murderer, which quickly garnered a large and fanatical viewership. Since then, Netflix has produced and acquired scores of true crime documentaries like The Keepers, Out of Thin Air, Casting JonBenet, and The Shadow of Truth, to name just a few.

Many of these docs are expertly crafted to titillate, generously handing over salacious details about heinous crimes. They lead us into the labyrinthine minds of killers, present us with tantalizing puzzles, and offer us horrors that don’t require the disruptive suspension of disbelief. Ultimately, the genre’s blend of mystery, violence, and deft storytelling makes for a compelling watch. But true crime also captures our attention for biological reasons beyond our control.

Our minds are intricate, complicated enigmas, but the brain still has some pretty conspicuous predilections. First off, our brains love puzzles, patterns, and problems that need solving. Inside our skulls float one of the best pattern-recognition machines on the planet, so when we’re presented with a mystery and some interconnected clues, our mind goes into overdrive. That’s why when Netflix’s latest true crime doc asks us to ponder who killed JonBenet Ramsey, our brain is eager to take on the challenge.

Reenactments of murders, accounts of violence, and shocking narrative twists can also provide viewers a jolt of adrenaline. Just as thrill-seekers feed off of the adrenaline rushes that result from roller coaster rides or bungee jumping, true crime fans feel a similar hormonal flood. We also derive immense pleasure from exploring and observing horrific violence from a position of complete safety. As witnesses, we can at once appreciate the safety of our homes and get high off of fear, all the while observing and judging without consequence.

But the popularity of true crime documentaries has its downsides. Often, by the mere chronicling of their murderous exploits, murderers, and serial killers are exalted and given what they desire most: attention from the public. And in their limited run times, docs also tend to simplify and minimize the humanity of both the victims and perpetrators of horrific violence; victims become flattened silhouettes and murderers become monsters and myths. The heinous acts of violence themselves also become less horrifying, less shocking; separated by a screen, the weight of graphic violence is diminished significantly.

Netflix seems acutely aware of its role as a bastion of true crime content and has recently helmed original content that engages in a direct dialogue with some of its most popular true crime docs. In offering differing but complementary explorations of true crime itself, Netflix is taking a more multi-faceted approach to the genre. Netflix’s American Vandal and Mindhunter, two of the best series of 2017, are both thoughtful, incisive responses to the recent true crime craze of which Netflix is at the forefront.

The brilliant American Vandal parodies Netflix’s true crime series with sharp insight and impressive attention to detail. The series applies all of Netflix’s true crime storytelling techniques to create a mystery that revolves not around murder, but an act of phallic vandalism in a high school parking lot. Mimicking the style of Netflix’s true crime hits like Making a Murderer and The Keepers, American Vandal plays with the formal and cinematic conventions that draw us into true crime stories in the first place. It does this so efficiently that we become genuinely and irrevocably engrossed in a seemingly asinine mystery; just as we itch to uncover the truth behind the JonBenet Ramsey murder, we are dying to know— Who drew the dicks?

By adopting the Netflix docs’ stylistic conventions, American Vandal reveals the mechanics behind the titillation and sense of investment that permeate the site’s biggest true crime hits. Co-creator Tony Yacenda told Vanity Fair, “I got the idea if we could use that same toolkit, if we could make it feel like one of these true-crime documentaries, we could get people to care about dicks.” Within this toolkit are the stylings that shape Netflix’s other true crime docs, especially Making a Murderer, which Yacenda cites as the series’ primary influence: ambient overhead pans, cutaway interviews, CG renderings of real events (in the case of American Vandal, that event is a lakeside hand job). The series’ creators also enlisted the help of documentarian cinematographer Adam Bricker, who had just finished working on the Netflix true crime doc Amanda Knox to further create a unity between the series and the rest Netflix’s true crime pantheon.

By deconstructing the stylistic standards of the genre, American Vandal reveals just how formulaic true crime docs can be. For many true crime fans, this can feel a bit like finding out the magical Wizard of Oz is just a dude pulling levers behind a curtain. As viewers, we become acutely aware of the tactics that so consistently rope us in. But the series ending is even more disruptive, as it ponders the consequences of this kind of hungry, layman investigation. Can our affinity for puzzles and answers result in real-world harm? Do we like seeing perpetrators caught as an expression of justice or for our satisfaction? The answers are left up to us, and the series’ conclusion is just as untidy as Making a Murderer‘s.

Mindhunter tackles another facet of Netflix’s true crime moment. This fictionalized serial drama focuses less on the structure of true crime narratives and more on the viewers themselves. It examines the potent effects of inundating ourselves with depictions of violence and depravity. Upon pondering the origins of the recent true crime boom, director David Fincher told Time, “I think there are a lot of people who see themselves as detectives. Certainly, when you see things like The Keepers, you can see that some people just get their righteous indignation stoked.”

Just as true crime viewers take on the role of detective, FBI agent Holden Ford does as well, interviewing serial killers and solving crimes along the way. Like many true crime fans, Holden develops an obsession with serial killers, frequently name-dropping and reciting details of their crimes. There is nothing particularly unusual about this interest— lots of people are fascinated by serial killers. But Holden shifts from a reflection to a cautionary tale when his obsession becomes unhealthy, and he begins to adopt some of his subjects’ more sociopathic tendencies in his personal and professional life. That’s not to say that our true crime obsession will lead us down a morally dubious path, but the series certainly encourages us to obsess mindfully.

Mindhunter also directly addresses particular issues with the true crime genre, using a format similar to Netflix’s doc “Interview with a Serial Killer” to frame its commentary. Fincher explores the nuances of humanity rather than portraying killers as monsters and dwelling on their violent deeds (as is the case in many true crime docs). While making the series, he considered that, though he aimed to be as “detail-oriented as possible, at a certain point you have to ask yourself, ‘There is a prurient nature to this. Are we feeding that? Do we want to know more about humanity or do we want to know about inhumanity?”” One way Fincher steers away from true crime prurience is by not depicting any of the killers’ gruesome acts on screen; the show is not about the violence itself, but the way we are affected by the violence and the mediocrity of the people who commit it.

In an interview with GQ, Jonathan Groff, who plays Holden, emphasizes this attempt to humanize rather than simply villainize: “The idea of the show is to humanize— not humanize their actions, but show them as fucked-up, messy, disgusting humans— instead of romanticizing.” True crime docs often turn their central murderers into enigmas, embodiments of evil, or calculated monsters; Mindhunter challenges this by portraying serial killers as awful people unworthy of our frenetic attention and obsession.

Netflix demonstrates a unique and admirable self-awareness by offering us both captivating staples of the true crime genre and intelligent critiques of it. The streaming giant’s enormous array of programming creates a space for intertextual discourse, where different shows can parody and respond to each other under the same corporate umbrella. Instead of creating disharmony within its repertoire, Netflix enhances its brand and enriches its offerings by producing series that can interact and dialogue with one another. With its diverse takes on the genre, Netflix both satiates and complicates our appetite for true crime. It offers us both sensationalized murder narratives and thoughtful genre deconstructions, perhaps in hopes that once we’ve finished our latest true crime binge, we can ponder the mechanisms behind our obsession.

Critiques as they may be, American Vandal and Mindhunter still fall into the true crime genre, and further solidify Netflix’s status as the premier destination for true crime fanatics (especially since both have been renewed for second seasons). Whether you’re dying to know whether or not Steven Avery did it, or dying to delve deeper into the mechanisms behind your true-crime-obsessed psyche, Netflix has got you covered.

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Writer, college student, television connoisseur.