With roughly 72,000 new TV series coming out every year, a good show often worms its way to the top of the pile through word of mouth, like Netflix’s Stranger Things, or the TBS comedy Search Party, both of which premiered in 2016. Now there’s American Vandal, a new Netflix series that quietly dropped a couple of weeks ago to a steady drumbeat of praise. With its moody production design and intriguing central mystery, the show seemed poised to become the next entry in the burgeoning field of prestige true-crime TV. But it didn’t take long for viewers to catch on that things weren’t as they seemed. After all, this show was hilarious.
Created by College Humor alum Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, and boasting a largely unknown cast of very funny young actors, American Vandal takes the form of an amateur investigation into an elaborate high school prank: twenty-seven vermilion dicks spray-painted on twenty-seven cars in the staff parking lot of the fictional Hanover High School in Oceanside, California. The show toys with our familiarity with the new lexicon of true-crime documentary series — not the old A&E stalwarts like The First 48, but the shiny new HBO and Netflix versions like The Jinx, Making a Murderer, The Keepers, the podcast S-Town, and, of course, the breakout first season of Serial, on NPR. It took me a couple of episodes to realize that American Vandal’s opening title sequence (ominous string music with shots of the suspect’s face fading in and out over black-and-white photos of crime-scene evidence) doesn’t credit Yacenda and Perrault but Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), the teenage filmmakers who take it upon themselves to find out #whodrewthedicks.
American Vandal is a starkly effective takeoff of the increasingly blurry line between filmmaker and investigator, chronicler and active participant. The first thing we hear is Peter’s voice instructing the main suspect, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), not to look directly at the camera, but at him. Yacenda, who directed all eight episodes of the first season, nails the visual and aural clichés of true crime, like the close-up on a rolling cassette tape to accompany audio of a suspect’s testimony. “Consider for a moment the type of person who would spray-paint dicks on cars in the staff parking lot,” Peter muses in voiceover in the first episode. “What do they look like? Who do they hang out with?” Throughout the series, Peter repeats narrative tics (“Remember when I told you…”) that will make the hairs on the back of any Serial listener’s neck prick up in eerie déjà vu. (American Vandal also owes a debt to IFC’s doc spoof Documentary Now! and the immutably brilliant This Is Spinal Tap.)
The show’s genius lies in that narration, a conscious imitation of the now-inescapable Ira Glass style — casual commentary that almost sounds improvised, and that indicates not an omniscient, authoritative voice but a more of-the-moment version: a conflicted and inexorably biased narrator who can’t help but involve himself in the story. Like other recent reality-TV spoofs (Nathan for You, Review), American Vandal takes on the anxiety of impartiality — the inevitability that the storyteller will infect the story with his point of view. In the second episode, Peter jumps in on a conference call between Dylan’s family and a lawyer. “I’m Peter, the documentarian,” he explains when the lawyer questions his presence; he compares his project to Serial. After a pause, the voice on the speakerphone replies, “That’s a terrible idea.”
The series proceeds to follow Peter and Sam down a winding path toward the truth. But soon, the question of who drew the dicks gives way to more prosaic high school drama — who gave a hand job to whom; who got into college and who didn’t. Like S-Town, what starts out as a straightforward crime story broadens into a portrait of a community. Much of the comedy lies in the contrast between the nasally DGAF tenor of American teenagers and the absolute seriousness with which they discuss the dick scandal plaguing their school, which, at this point in their lives, is their whole world.
Yacenda and Perrault make creative use of the contemporary high school setting, an aggressively bland open-air campus that looks like it could be anywhere in North America were it not for the palm trees. Peter and Sam use Instagram and Snapchat to piece together the events of a fateful party where they manage to track down the can of paint used to draw the dicks. (“When’s the first time we clocked the can?” Sam asks as they build their timeline.) They discover that the school’s key witness, Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), lied about how wasted he was at the party — they can see he was nursing the same beer all night. And since he also lied about getting a hand job from Sarah Pearson (Saxon Sharbino), can the school really trust his testimony?
The investigation unfolds in hilarious detail. Peter and Sam do a “ballistics test” on the paint can to determine if the first spray would produce a splatter; therefore, if one of the painted dicks shows evidence of such a splatter, they may conclude that the car’s owner was the target of the vandalism and surmise which student might have a vendetta against that teacher. Pinning photos to a corkboard covered in crisscrossing red string, they throw themselves into their project with the intensity of Carrie Mathison, comparing the dicks Dylan has been known to draw on classroom whiteboards (ball hairs) to the dicks drawn on the cars (no ball hairs). “If you’ve ever drawn a dick,” Peter narrates, as he and Sam test out their hypotheses, “you know you don’t start in the middle of the shaft.”
As the inquiry drags on, Peter and Sam loom larger in it. The students at Hanover start watching the episodes as they’re released; soon, American Vandal goes viral. Peter is suspended for secretly filming interviews with teachers after he’s banned from shooting on campus, until local news coverage and online petitions land him back at school. All the while, more and more secrets come tumbling out of private Instagram accounts and text conversations. When Peter and Sam zero in on Dylan’s girlfriend, Mackenzie Wagner (Camille Ramsey), as a suspect, she sends them video evidence that exonerates both her and Dylan — but that jeopardizes their relationship. Still, as she tells Peter, she doesn’t want to be blamed for a dumb crime she didn’t commit. She wants to go to college. As trifling as the premise of American Vandal may sound, it takes its young subjects seriously.
Like the stone-faced documentaries it apes, American Vandal is arguably more about the process of making a documentary than it is about the crime at hand — the irony being that this kind of radically transparent approach often ends up obscuring more than it reveals, leaving us feeling muddied and unenlightened, if mildly entertained. In the second-to-last episode, Mackenzie reams out Peter for meddling in the lives of the student body, and for what? “You had to make the best movie?” Later, at an end-of-year party, Sarah Pearson does the same, informing Peter that her dad is now aware that she has a “hookup list” thanks to his project. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, most of the people who are hurt by Peter’s film — Mackenzie; Sarah; Gabi Granger (Camille Hyde), Sam’s best friend, who discovers over the course of the investigation that her boyfriend cheated on her — are girls, their dignity and privacy sacrificed for Peter’s supposedly noble pursuit of the truth.
I don’t mean to come down too hard on Peter Maldonado. He’s just a kid. Of course his documentary turns into an exercise in navel-gazing; leave it to a high schooler to make it all about himself. But Peter’s only echoing our au courant mode of storytelling, an increasingly seductive and commercially successful voice that says, “Fuck it, there’s no such thing as objective truth. Here’s what I think.”