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(L-R) Photo of Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), Chloe Lyman (Taylor Dearden) and Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) in American Vandal. // Photo courtesy of Netflix.

American Vandal: The greatest true crime documentary you’ve never seen

By Nicholas Cervania, January 5 2021—

I remember when the first trailer for the Netflix Original series, American Vandal, was released. People were sharing it all over Facebook, left and right. It looked super interesting and the fact that everyone thought it was a real documentary at the time was pretty impressive.

But then it came out and nobody watched it. 

Everyone I talked to either hasn’t seen the show or hasn’t even heard of it and I honestly can’t understand why. While the premise can seem a little silly and lowbrow, the show itself carries a high level of seriousness and is extremely consistent with its tone, which makes it  even better as a work of satire and it never dips down into Step-Brothers or Big Mouth levels of stupidity and absurdity. I know a lot of people who skipped this show on the premise alone, and this is a pretty insane concept to me. They’ll see the trailer and say, “That looks dumb and I’m not going to watch it.” But it’s satire — it’s purposely a subversion of your expectations. If it looks dumb then that’s only because it’s doing a good job. I can say without exaggeration that American Vandal is one of the most riveting and engaging Netflix Originals I’ve ever seen.

For those of you who don’t know, American Vandal is a satirical mockumentary in the vein of other true crime documentaries such as Making a Murderer, or Serial. The first season follows two high school students, Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) and Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvararez) as they try to uncover the truth behind a vandal prank that took place at their school. Somebody vandalized 27 cars with 27 phallic images in the teacher’s parking lot and the school board used one of the students, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) as a scapegoat, expelling him for a crime he may or may not have committed. 

Right off the bat, the show hooks you in with compelling character writing and we’re led to question Dylan’s innocence, an idea that permeates throughout the entire season. We’re shown that Dylan isn’t exactly the most trustworthy guy, and that he has a specific pattern of behavior that involves him acting out, being disruptive and disrespectful, and having a history of poor decisions. He steals food from his Postmates orders, he pulls stupid pranks and he makes whale noises during class. In the most egregious instance, he even lies to the documentary crew about an aspect of his innocence. If anyone were to pull a prank like this, it would be him. This is by far one of my favorite aspects of this show. It would be one thing if there were no doubts about Dylan’s innocence — if he was a small, lost puppy, then you’d obviously feel for him and want him exonerated. But having him as a morally ambiguous character adds another layer of suspense and tension to the story, a narrative choice that works out for the better. With him as the protagonist, you want to see Dylan succeed, you want to find evidence that proves he’s innocent. But at the same time, you also want to see him face consequences for his actions.

While Dylan’s side of the story is shown to have holes and inconsistencies, we’re also shown that there are inconsistencies found within the opposing school board’s testimony. A lot of assumptions and evidence that’s presented against Dylan doesn’t make a lot of sense, and that’s where most of the plot gets devoted. For the most part, each episode will be investigating a new inconsistency, revealing new information and new mysteries to investigate, while also potentially adding to another plot thread introduced in a previous episode. As an audience, you always feel like the investigation is  moving towards the truth no matter what’s happening, and this is indicative of the show’s excellent pacing. The stakes are high, but they also feel proportionate to the problem at hand. It never has to jump the shark in order to hold your attention.

Plus, the character writing in this show is excellent all around. I genuinely feel like I knew people like this in high school. Whether it’s the underachieving burnout students like Dylan and his friends, the overachieving annoying tryhard students, the teacher who tries way too hard to fit in and be one of the cool kids or the one teacher that everybody loves but actually hates you. Everything in this show is presented with an exceptional level of verisimilitude.

I don’t know about you, but this is the exact high school experience I had, and while this makes the writing more realistic and grounded, it also makes the plot a lot more relatable and believable. A lot of other mockumentary series like The Office or Parks and Recreation rely on over-the-top situations or outlandish characters to be funny, and it’s interesting to have a show like this that forgoes that and manages to create comedy in a more grounded way. Most people who saw the trailer couldn’t even tell if it was a true story or not. 

It would be really easy for a show like this to just be brain-dead entertainment, but it actually has a prominent central theme surrounding it. That theme being how accusations and the justice system as a whole can have intense and unintended ramifications. Because of the circumstantial evidence and false accusations towards Dylan, his whole life was ruined. He was expelled from school, wouldn’t be allowed into college and became a social outcast. Moreover, as the documentary crew continues their investigation, they inadvertently meddle with and disrupt the personal lives of those involved. All of this is punctuated in the seventh episode by a single-shot, incredible performance by Camille Ramsey, who plays Dylan’s girlfriend, Mackenzie Wagner. If you’ve seen the show you’ll know exactly what I mean. In fact, all the performances are pretty solid. Nobody ever feels out of place, the dialog flows in a very natural and cohesive way and teenagers talk like actual teenagers.

If that’s not enough, there’s also a second season that’s just as good as the first one. Season two sees Peter and Sam across the country investigating a series of pranks at a Catholic high school. Outside of Peter and Sam, none of the cast from the original season make an appearance, but we’re introduced to new characters who are interesting in different ways. This time, they’re investigating the mysterious “Turd Burglar,” who’s been harassing the students and teachers with several pranks and no leads on his true identity outside of a student who was framed by the system, reminiscent of Dylan’s situation in the first season. However if you ask me, season two of American Vandal makes a few narrative missteps, but also addresses a few complaints I had with the first season. 

For one, the accused vandal, Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) hardly gets screen time. While you’re led to question his innocence like Dylan Maxwell, we don’t get enough time devoted to his character and as such, we don’t really care about his exoneration. He doesn’t even seem like he cares about it himself. The same issues also follow the Turd Burglar. When his identity was revealed I almost didn’t remember who he was. There’s also a lot of large, out of place,  dumps (no pun intended) of exposition, which slows down the pacing, but it isn’t anything too noticeable. Moreover, while the season goes out of its way to demonstrate its theme about how those who feel marginalized are susceptible to radicalization, these ideas aren’t very prominent or built up to until the very last episode. 

Plus, a lot of the humor — especially the turd burglar pranks — rely mostly on shock value for comedic effect. But this isn’t the case with all the jokes and is really only prominent in the early episodes, so this is more of a minor complaint. 

However, one aspect I did enjoy about season two’s story was that it completely ditched the behind-the-scenes drama. In the first season, Peter and Sam get into a fight and it causes some tension between them. While it fleshes out all the characters involved in the show, it also diverts the focus away from the more compelling plot about Dylan. This is completely gone in Season two and leads to a better pace in storytelling. Another aspect I liked was that Season two has a foreboding antagonist that’s present throughout the entire season. The Turd Burglar is constantly goading the documentary crew and leading them along. It gives them and the audience a strong and present antagonistic force to root against. As you see the main characters interacting with the villain, you want to find out who he is so that he can be taken down, even more so since he’s actively working against the success of the main characters. 

Every time anyone asks me for recommendations, American Vandal is at the top of my list. Passive viewers can enjoy the mystery and humor, and active viewers can enjoy the satirical take on the genre — there’s something in this show for everybody to enjoy. If you’ve never heard of this show before and think it sounds kind of cool, or if you’re bored in quarantine and looking to pass the time, I implore you to give American Vandal a chance.

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