The YouTube channel Dad debuted earlier in the year and it is so far making for a charming and enjoyably knotty Alternative Reality Game (ARG). It lives by its wits day-to-day, nimbly and frivolously, but there is always an equal measure of subtle creepiness to counterweigh the charm. Equipoise is this story’s heart’s desire. The channel is like a neat gizmo that is running a variety of applications but that somehow performs more smoothly the more that is loaded on to it. Once you have put a little mental distance between yourself and it, you can also isolate elements of this story that function satirically or as metafiction.
The basic plot is that a colony of extraterrestrials has established itself on Earth. Rather than stalking over the land in tripods or kidnapping earthlings in flying saucers, they have decided to take over by using YouTube. One of their number is safely camouflaged as that most familiar and reliable of cultural phenomena, the all-American Dad, with his corporate job, suburban family, and trusty DIY knowhow. The aliens duly proceed to upload some suitably all-American, suburban videos. These clips must be (a) inconspicuous, without any tell-tale flashes of tentacles or ray-guns, and (b) hugely popular, so as to recruit ever more subscribers. Eventually, all of Dad’s unsuspecting viewers will be presumably harvested in some way.
The aliens turn out to be poor anthropologists. Their attempts to get under the surface of American culture and to produce a passable imitation of an all-American Dad have soon bombed woefully. Dad resembles a real human being as accurately as Mickey Mouse does a genuine biological rodent. He refers to himself in the third person and to his wife and daughter (Erika Rankin and Olivia Stuck) as “Wife” and “Daughter.” He does not have an endearing sad-Dad’s affection for donuts or Duff beer, but for labelled cans of plain “Food.” He wears a single unvarying Dad’s costume: a Homer Simpson sleeveless white work shirt; the most boring tie in the shop; and a pair of smart brown work trousers. This is a get-up so unglamorous that it would have made Adonis a turn-off.
Dad is indeed ostensibly modelled on Homer Simpson, with the same loveable personality and rueful naivety. But his stilted story looks like a 1970s daytime soap opera that has been scripted by a robot in Safe Mode without access to sufficient data. In the barest of available soap-opera plotlines, Dad worries about his rebellious teenaged daughter whilst we in turn worry that his wife is having an affair with the Neighbour (Joe Hursley). The following drama accounts for modern American society as sketchily as cave paintings had once done Neolithic ones.
There are further inauthentic touches that increasingly give the aliens’ game away. The family communicate through telepathy and the Food is teleported into their home by glowing orbs. The biggest mistake, though, is the dancing. Any Earth Dad’s dancing is inevitably graceless and cringe-making, but this Dad’s shapes are smoulderingly sensual and sexy and rather fascinatingly simian. This is the decider – no way can such a swinging Dad be a real Earth Dad, operating under real Earth gravity.
The aliens grow ever sloppier and after a while they are openly admitting that they were never actually at home within their simulation of Earthly domestic bliss. Have they visited the Earth to become “the number one YouTuber” simply out of disinterested sportsmanship, or are they refugees from some dying world?
My highway into the mystery here is the YouTuber Night Mind, who knows how to play ARGs and who has chased up all of the various snippets of code in Dad to try to flesh out its story. Night Mind tenders one theory that Dad might not be an E.T. but an A.I., namely a ground-breaking, quantum-enhanced A.I. that has been unleashed by the YouTube platform itself. Considering the sheer number of adverts for True Value that drop from Dad’s lips, it seems more likely that he is a robotic promotional mascot that has been constructed using discount power tools. Night Mind also explores several eerie videos in which Nathan Barnatt, the performer who plays Dad, appears to be haunted or possessed by a doppelgänger on his home channel. This represents another opening in the story’s already crowded “meta.”
The ARG is always so fresh and resourceful that it feels wrong to speak of it as though it is influenced by one thing or another. I have still noticed a few potential affinities with other movers and shakers. As well as recalling the laughable melodrama of Invitation to Love, David Lynch’s soap-opera-within-a-soap-opera, Dad evokes some of the delicious awkwardness that had ensued when Lynch’s protagonist Dale Cooper was incarnated as Dougie Jones, a dreamwalking suburban Dad with all the social nous of a newborn baby. I am also for some reason enormously reminded of the 1980s television show ALF, which had portrayed a refugee extraterrestrial who was living covertly in suburban Los Angeles. Dad’s character combines ALF’s forlorn status as an interplanetary visitor with the blameless domesticity of his despairing hosts, the Tanner family.
When I had first watched the Dad channel, I had assumed that it was another project from Titanic Sinclair, the troubled, Warholesque presence who powers the YouTube experience Poppy. There is certainly a lot in common between Dad and Poppy: both channels recruit an extremely watchable performer to play a spaced-out character; both of these characters host lifestyle videos in which the oppressively banal contents are undercut by prowling synths; both upload a mixed menu of music videos, live Q&A streams, and slender, atmospheric shards of story; both collaborate on their music videos with mainstream pop stars; and both are, of course, made in balmy California. Despite this striking aesthetic convergence, I am yet to procure evidence that Sinclair has had any active hand in the Dad channel.
The meaning of Dad is pegged to the extent to which you like and trust the central character. If you find his personality loveable, then this is ultimately a comedy about a goofy extraterrestrial who has gatecrashed Earth to become a YouTube star. If you fundamentally distrust him, then his story instead becomes a real creeper, an existential horror in which you are struggling to perceive what is truly scuttling about behind the braindead televisual clichés.
So far this channel can find room to harmoniously accommodate both interpretations. Equipoise is, as I have already noted, its heart’s desire. Dad has a good team of characters at its disposal and numerous directions in which to develop. Ironically, behind this pleasantly impudent mimicry of a traditional soap opera there might be a more genuine drama that is waiting for us to latch on to it. Wife, or Dad’s wife Cheryl, might be some kind of supervisor in the colony’s hierarchy, since she controls what Dad eats and what he can upload. In one clip called “Private,” we see a detective sneaking into the family home, where he is no doubt still suspensefully hiding. We are at a stage with Dad where we have been assured that we are going to enjoy ourselves and now all that remains is to keep watching.
It is worth noting the care with which even the most minor of Dad’s videos is constructed. “40K Celebration!,” something which on any other channel would be informal and small-scale, is here nervy, surreal and daft all in one sitting. You are meant to take these videos one at a time and to enjoy them as they come. Dad might not be the “number one YouTuber” – if he thinks that he is better than PewDiePie then you have to ask what planet he is on – but his channel is still possibly the most ambitious and imaginative ARG currently on the go.