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American Vandal transforms the true crime format into ambitious art wrapped in dick jokes.
In the first season of American Vandal, teen filmmakers Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) set out to solve a mystery: Who spray-painted dicks on the cars of 27 teachers at their high school? In the show’s second season, which hit Netflix today, Peter and Sam have received funding to take on another mystery at a different high school. Instead of penis art, the crime this time revolves around excrement — specifically, who carried out three poop-related crimes at an affluent Catholic school in Washington state, the first and most extreme of which involved tainted lemonade and hundreds of students shitting themselves in the hallways?
I discovered American Vandal on Oct. 15, not long after the Harvey Weinstein abuse stories broke in the New York Times and the New Yorker — a moment when, as a woman journalist, I did not expect to embrace a show built off of a constant barrage of dick jokes. It took only about three minutes to get me hooked, though, and I had a big happy grin on my face through the entire first season. Do you know what a miracle that was, given what the final months of 2017 felt like? American Vandal was a dose of much-needed levity amid, well, a downpour of real-life shit.
The second season of the show had much the same effect. But the series is more than funny, and more than a distraction. In eight-episode blocks, American Vandal is establishing itself as a creative force to be reckoned with. It’s potty humor turned prestige TV, through the sheer force of well-crafted story. Here are some of the things that make it great.
American Vandal is a mockumentary that takes on the style of serialized true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer, The Keepers, The Jinx, and The Staircase. Those shows were combing through real-life atrocities of murder and abuse; American Vandal is connecting the dots on who made a lot of teens poop their pants. But the structure is employed perfectly here. American Vandal is one of the most gripping shows on television, siphoning the tension of a tightly edited true crime series into the frenetic spirit of bro-y scatological humor.
Show me someone who wasn’t dying to find out who the “Turd Burglar” is, and I will show you a liar.
Peter, as the series’ narrator and lead “detective,” approaches the crimes with a furrowed brow and an intensity familiar to anyone who’s ever hung around teenagers with filmmaking ambitions. The mysteries pivot on things that sound small — extra Y’s at the end of a “hey” text, drawing testicles with or without pubic hair, and whether or not someone had the November 2017 iPhone text glitch, for example — but they all feel like weighty, genuinely compelling developments because, in the context of these shit-and-dick mysteries, they are. Part of the brilliance of American Vandal is that it gives us solvable mysteries with stakes — but ones that aren’t directly connected to the many harsh realities in our real world that need solving right now. American Vandal sweeps you into its universe. Show me someone who wasn’t dying to find out who the “Turd Burglar” is, and I will show you a liar.
The way that high school junior Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) says the word “horchata” in American Vandal’s second season is the perfect microcosm of what the show does so well. It comes out in an over-enunciated “or-CHAUGHT-ah,” and it tells you exactly who this character is. A white teen boy long ago branded as weird by his classmates, Kevin decided to roll with that by turning his whole personality into a performance of snobbery, from his love of specialty teas to his Rick and Morty fandom. Whether you went to high school two years ago or 20, Kevin is specific and viscerally recognizable.
That’s what American Vandal does best: It fills its world with characters both archetypical and real, precise but universal to American high schools. Most people have probably encountered an Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), the duplicitous teen boy from the first season with the mouth full of braces and the constant smug, weaselly expression on his face. Teen dramas have certainly shown us young men like Season 2’s DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), the gregarious basketball star who’s been marked for career greatness and who has wholeheartedly embraced that future. The show pokes fun at these characters, but it also gives them the time and space to be seen as more than their “type,” fleshing them out in ways that reward the viewer and deepen the series as a whole. Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) becomes more than a slack-jawed slacker; other characters evolve past just being the snooty rich girl or the ambitious goody-goody. American Vandal approaches high school with empathy and genuine insight, couching it all in a humor that sets it aside from any other show about teens on TV. Watching it feels like going back in time to the most wild day in English class, minus the horrific task of actually having to be a teen again.
American Vandal has the kind of combined greatness that makes me irrationally angry. How dare they be so good at this? Who gives anyone the right to be this good at anything? How on earth am I so invested in finding out who spray-painted penises onto a bunch of cars?
That quality is born from the way the show’s writing, directing, editing, and acting all work in tandem. One of American Vandal’s creators, Tony Yacenda, has directed every episode of the show, and his vision has helped keep its tone, story, and performances consistent and solid. This is a show with a clear creative identity, and everyone involved knows exactly how to drive the story home.
The acting is a key part of how it all comes together. There is something in the way Tope uses his lips and eyes as Kevin in the second season of American Vandal; something in the goofy, confident ease with which Gregg moves through a scene as DeMarcus; in the deep-voiced slowness of how Tatro slouches around as Dylan. They’re all traits that add to that aforementioned familiarity of the characters — establishing that Kevin is an elitist outsider, that DeMarcus is the kind of kid who seems, at least, to be soaring through life, and that Dylan is a slacker going through a tough time.
But as the story deepens and the mystery of the Turd Burglar becomes more complex, so too does the way the actors wield their characters’ defining traits. The final episodes of both seasons of American Vandal bring story and character arc alike to their natural conclusions. They also manage to surprise you. In Tatro’s performance, all of Dylan’s pain and silliness pokes through at once in a way that’s quite heartrending. It’s not a spoiler to say that Tope and Gregg, too, drive the story home in the final episodes of Season 2: They play quiet moments that manage to ground this blue-humor-driven show emotionally, their eyes conveying how the mystery wrapped itself around every character. These are performances that really sell the show’s thesis — that people are always complicated, and that we are never going to see the full picture of any story until we acknowledge those layers.
Season 1 of American Vandal would have fallen flat if there hadn’t been stakes to the mystery of who spray-painted those penises. The question of whether or not Dylan would be allowed to return to school — whether he’d have a fair chance at his future — propelled the whole season forward, especially as Peter and Sam became emotionally involved in exonerating him. The show used the fact that Dylan was a stoner class clown — the exact kid you’d assume would paint 27 dicks on a bunch of teachers’ cars — to examine the social and systemic ways our assumptions about people can do real damage. What started as a show about dick jokes turned into a uniquely stirring look at how early on we start to put people in boxes.
I won’t spoil the payoff for American Vandal’s second season, but it is a spiritual successor to the first. This show revels in sending up the archetypes of the American high school experience, but it’s also invested in making sure that its examinations are as thoughtful and revealing as they are, well, full of poop jokes and 3D renderings of hand jobs. It demands investment in its mystery early on. You are rewarded with not just a riotous good time, but a deft contemplation of American teenhood. I left Season 2 with a question: How did this show about dick jokes make me feel so many things?