Streaming Roundup: ‘AMERICAN VANDAL,’ ‘THE FIRST,’ and ‘HILDA’

Whether you’re into children’s fantasy, brooding astronauts, or true crime + poop jokes, this roundup has something for everyone.

American Vandal, Season 2 (Netflix)

The first season of Tony Yacenda & Dan Perrault’s true crime mock-doc was a stealth success; it lured viewers in with spray-painted phalluses and a pitch-perfect parody of series like Making a Murderer, but gradually revealed hidden depths of thematic complexity, character-driven pathos, and a genuinely compelling mystery. It was, in short, a tough act to follow. What could a second season offer that wasn’t just more of the same? If you’ve already hit all of the “Serial, but in a high school” story beats, wouldn’t it be better just to leave it as a one-and-done? Fortunately, the show’s writers weren’t entirely out of ideas. Season 2 moves our investigators Peter and Sam (Tyler Alvarez & Griffin Gluck) up the coast to a Catholic school (shades of The Keepers), to solve a new, gross crime: Who dumped laxatives in the school’s lemonade and, while posting from “@TheTurdBurglar” on Instagram, committed a string of other fecal-related incidents?

Writing candidly, I don’t love scatological humor. It’s not necessarily that I find it juvenile, but that I just don’t find it funny. So if I have to watch multiple shaky iPhone sequences of crying teenagers spraying diarrhea all over the halls, it better be in service of some objectively great storytelling. I was relieved to find that while Vandal S2 wasn’t as consistently funny as the first, that was partially by design; the students of St. Bernadine went through a real trauma, and the series ultimately drills down on a host of weighty issues with not just nuance, but actual insight into what it’s really like to be a teenager in our social media-driven age.

And like last year, the biggest plaudits go to the casting director, Wendy O’Brien. Every victim (and potential suspect) at St. Bern’s is a fully-realized character: Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), the self-made weirdo who dons a horse mask to play house music for middle schoolers, and who claims he was coerced into confessing to the “poop crimes”; DeMarcus Tillman (an astonishingly authentic Melvin Gregg), the school’s star basketball player and god among boys; DeMarcus’s best friend/manager, Lou (Dear White People’s DeRon Horton); Chloe Lyman (Taylor Dearden), who brings the story to the Vandal crew’s attention; and on down to their classmates, teachers (including one poor woman who consistently misuses 2018 slang), administrators, and one unnaturally hot janitor. Tope and Gregg get the bulk of the screen time, and are diametric opposites on a spectrum of charisma that bends around to form a Möbius strip, both showing aching vulnerability as the season goes on.

The structure is familiar, as it already was in Season 1: The crimes are depicted; suspects are proffered, discarded, then examined again. But the plotting is more complex, certainly, which is why it doesn’t make time this year for Peter & Sam to get their own subplot — they’re there to do their digging and string clues up on their cork board. (I loved, however, the little acknowledgment at the beginning of the first season’s suspiciously high production value: Once American Vandal took Vimeo by storm, Netflix ponied up for drone shots and animated reenactments.) Now that our documentarians have wrapped up their senior project, what will film school — and a university setting — hold for them? Last year, I was nervous for more. But the formula is tried and true, so now I’m only nervous about what the next gross crime will be.

The First (Hulu)

The headlines for Beau Willemon’s House of Cards follow-up write themselves (“The First fails to take off;” “The First stalls on the launchpad,” etc.), but once I accepted that this isn’t wasn’t a space drama but a poetic character study about Providence 2’s participants, it wasn’t long before I fell under its proto-Malickian spell. It’s about the people, not the mission, which doesn’t even begin until halfway through the eighth and final episode, but those emotional beats wouldn’t have landed nearly as hard without the patient storytelling that came before.

It helps to have a terrific cast. Sean Penn, leading his first television series, could have sleepwalked through the role of Tom Hagerty, the mission commander who’s hungry for redemption after personal drama cost him his seat on the doomed first mission to Mars. But Penn is fantastic: He looks almost entirely made of sinew, but his performance is naturalistic and soulful. Natascha McElhone also shines as Laz, the tightly-wound director of the joint NASA/private company program. Likable turns from Oded Fehr, LisaGay Hamilton, Hannah Ware, and James Ransone hold down the screen when the two leads aren’t on it. Even FOTS favorite Bill Camp appears as a skeptical reporter.

But the real find is Anna Jacoby-Heron, who plays Penn’s daughter, painter (and addict) Denise. The 23-year-old shows remarkable potential in her utterly open and vulnerable performance, a work of impressive stillness where everything happens behind her eyes until the dam finally breaks at season’s end. The showcase episode is the fifth, “Two Portraits,” which is barely about any astronaut stuff at all, but depicts the disintegration of the Hagerty family in a series of nested flashbacks, anchored by Jacoby-Heron’s rawness and boldly directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. I’ve seen that kind of episode a hundred times, but never quite like this: individual moments play out almost on a darkened stage, putting father, mother, and daughter in greater and greater isolation.

While those choices work, at least uniquely, the show isn’t without its pretensions. A recurring motif is voiceover from what appears to just be a Cajun guy working on machines in a garage, philosophizing like McConaughey in a Lincoln ad while stock footage of cicadas and sunrises play on top. It’s…weird, and I waited all season to find out who he was and what those interludes were for, and I’m still waiting. But looking past that, the immaculate sets (those homes!), vaguely plausible future tech (self-driving cars, augmented reality glasses), and the actual plot of the mission to Mars, the heart of the show is its characters, which are fortunately compelling enough to bring me back once — one presumes — Season 2 flies in a more conventional direction.

Hilda (Netflix)

Hilda is my 7-year-old daughter’s new favorite show, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is. Based on the graphic novel series by Luke Pearson and brought to the screen by Pearson, Kurt Mueller, Stephanie Simpson, and series director Andy Coyle, it’s easily the most charming and re-watchable entry in Netflix’s quietly swelling roster of children’s cartoons. It’s so good, in fact, that — like the new DuckTales — you may find yourself loving it even if you don’t have kids. I won’t tell anyone, I promise.

Set in something like Scandinavia, the blue-haired Hilda (voiced by Bella Ramsey, a.k.a. Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones) lives in the wilderness with her Mum (Daisy Haggard) and her adorable deerfox, Twig, until fantastical circumstances force a move to the urban non-wonderland of Trolberg. There, she joins up with a group of Scout types called Sparrows and leads her new friends on adventures with various magical creatures instead of trying to get badges. Every episode feels like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in miniature, where plucky Hilda, Freida, and David have to use their cleverness to solve the problem of the day while often showing the adults that the assorted trolls, giants, and hounds aren’t as scary as they seem — assuming they can see them at all.

The series has at least three great things going for it. First, a genuine interest in folklore: Each creature, from the Nissas (gnomelike beings who live in the hidden spaces in your home) to the Marra (nightmare spirits in the form of sullen teenagers), to the taciturn Woodman (literally, Wood Man) are either drawn directly from Scandinavian legends or feel of a piece with the the ones that are. This is often done quite cleverly, as in the case of the “Little People,” whose discovery sets the series’ main plot in motion — reminiscent of Terry Pratchett creations, these elves live in homes invisible to humans who haven’t filled out the proper paperwork, which means they’re constantly being stepped through.

Second, the animation — from Canadian outfit Mercury Filmworks — is first rate, head and shoulders above your usual kids’ fare. Many compositions evoke a wintry, playful Miyazaki in their depiction of Hilda’s natural setting and occasionally sentient weather, and the blending of character and magic is like Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea for the slightly younger set. The third ingredient is the series’s music, a catchy and complex electronic-pop soundtrack by the young singer-songwriter Grimes. The whole thing adds up to a delightful weekend’s binge with the family. You can try pacing it out, but they’re going to want to start it all over again right away, either way.

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