We all know this is true. American Vandal’s first season dropped in September of last year and turned into an overnight success (much like another Netflix original). In a time of high tensions and murderous thots, American Vandal set out to satirize the hot-button genre of true crime, as popularized by shows and podcasts like Making a Murderer and Serial. I’ve likely mentioned before my thoughts on why true crime is seeing a surge in popularity right now, but the answer is simple. Much like how the Depression fueled war-time tensions of the 1920s brought out a surge in film noir, a genre that heavily emphasizes grit and jade, the current post-Recession era of political and divisive social tension has been a stepping stone for a more real version of film noir in the genre of True Crime. But with the added overproduced quality touches of streaming and technology, true crime specifically through the meta lenses of a very prolific backer like Netflix can feel… boring and unreal. So, it’s an extremely smart touch for a show like American Vandal to come out now that utilizes a mockumentary comedy style format to not only poke fun at true crime but also shed light on all the flaws of true crime as a genre, while highlighting the emergence of a newer, younger generation.
That being said, American Vandal is funny. Like, really fucking funny. You might think you’re above dick jokes, but you’re not. No one is. Because in the first season, the writers have managed to take something as inherently stupid as dick jokes and up the irony tenfold by making all the characters take them seriously. We follow two high school sophomores Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, who are, for the most part, AV club nerds, as they construct a documentary investigation behind who spray-painted 27 penises onto 27 school faculty cars. They take the investigation with the utmost seriousness, never once cracking up when muttering the words “ball hairs” as the reason why the school’s primary suspect, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), is actually innocent. In fact, the show’s primary joke machine lies directly in the earnestness of Peter and Sam as they try to crack the case of the dicks. But, that’s not to say the rest of the show isn’t also just literally littered with nuggets of comedic gold. One of my favorite throwaway lines from the show (and there are a lot) is when one of the students claimed trying to cheat off his Asian classmate, but that he couldn’t because “[the Asian kid] looks smart, but he fucking isn’t”. Just so stupid, but so, so funny.
As a mockumentary style docu-series, American Vandal hit on so many true crime elements to a tee that simply the re-creation of it was funny to watch. Peter Maldonado’s distilled, Sara Koenig-esque voiceover is perfect. The creepy song montage of pan-over shots that serves as the show intro, complete with the students’ names in the credits, is perfect. The 3D model rendition of a girl giving a boy a hand job at a lake during the school field trip is PERFECT! Sure there are a bunch of unrealistic elements as well, like how Peter and Sam could’ve possibly extracted every Snapchat video from every student at a party, but the innovation that came with a show like this overshadows all of that. Not to mention the absolutely impeccable casting. The Pop Culture Happy Hour episode for American Vandal made note of how the show producers pulled a golden Jimmy Tatro out of the same ditch they dug a golden Channing Tatum out of, and I couldn’t agree more.
For as funny as the show is though, it really does an excruciatingly good job at satirizing true crime. The subject matter they tackle may be “Who Did the Dicks”, but the true “crime” here is in the ways that the genre can dehumanize people and put them up for display, often without their consent. This is no spoiler but throughout the show, Peter and Sam take roundabout routes to get to who could’ve done the dicks; they go up and down one of the popular girl’s sex list (and exposing it in their documentary), they post another girl’s nudes-as-alibi in their documentary, they divulge into relatively useless information about another guy cheating on one of their close girl friends, and all for the sake of trying to find who did the dicks. In retrospect, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not, American Vandal season one may have also showcased boys’/men’s easy lack of disrespect for girls’/women’s privacy because all of these casualties came down to the girls at the school, nearly all of whom were unrelated to the actual dick-drawing vandalism. And, unrelated but related, there is also a scene in which Dylan Maxwell learns of his peers’ real thoughts on him via the documentary, and it’s honestly a little heartbreaking.
You can imagine my sadness, then, in knowing American Vandal was shut out of Emmy nominations. But, I’m not that butthurt because what we got instead was a second season of American Vandal, in which the primary crime involves a series of questionable poop-related incidents, someone named The Turd Burglar, and an impressive deep dive into the impacts of social media. Certainly not a “put your phones down and talk to each other” kind of lecture on social media (although the last episode of the season begs to differ), season two does an equally impressive job at applying murder-related true crime genre elements to absolutely filthy juvenile jokes, and coming out with an ambivalent and thought-provoking message about the incoming generation of kids and their ties to social media. Still though, without Jimmy Tatro at its center, American Vandal season two has no choice but to defer to season one as its superior.