Netflix has been growing its true-crime library with Making a Murderer, The Keepers, Amanda Knox, Audrie & Daisy, Casting JonBenet, Strong Island, and the upcoming Long Shot. But with American Vandal it appears to be hedging its bets and going right for parody.
American Vandal is, at its core, an eight-episode dick joke. Twenty-seven faculty cars were defaced with dicks in the parking lot of Hanover High School, and Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) is the main suspect. “Everyone thinks I did it,” he says in the first episode.
“Did what?” the interviewer asks
And so begins the exhaustive search for answers, in the style of Making a Murderer or Serial. We see surveillance footage, alternate suspects, shifting alibis, weakened allegiances. While we observe an array for students, teachers, and parents, the highlight is really “known dick-drawer” Dylan. He’s a braying bro who points out he’s too stupid to have done the crime, while enthusiastically hyping his YouTube prank channel, Way Back Boys, in which he and his friends tip over port-a-potties, fart on babies, and prank call an old man. It’s not a direct critique of YouTube prank channels, but it gets at the emptiness of them. And sometimes just lingering on Dylan’s face is funny. For a series about dick graffiti, American Vandal has some subtle comedic moments.
However, American Vandal doesn’t paint teenagers as stupid. Much like in 13 Reasons Why, they’re the ones doing the work and looking for clues. In making students the detectives (and suspects), it also addresses the criticisms true-crime documentarians have received about getting too close to subjects, sensationalizing, or letting personal feelings cloud judgement. The narrator, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), who’s making a documentary called American Vandal, seems to be suspect from the first episode, but the series makes you wait for his interrogation.
Series creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault were previously embedded in the world of sketch comedy videos, and it feels like American Vandal was a sketch idea first. After a few episodes, with no real change of venue, it starts to feel like it would have worked better as one. But the series is as much about “the dicks” as it is about high school culture, if not more so. It explores hookups and relationships with a fine-tooth comb. We get a reenactment of the crime, as well as a computer-generated reenactment of an alleged handjob at a summer camp. After a guy reads way too much into a girl’s texts, it becomes a meme. Social media is key to the investigation, and the inanity that comes with it. The camera here is a smartphone.
The final episode finally gets at some genuine emotion, and the reactions to Peter’s documentary are devastating. If you give it some time, American Vandal will turn a dick joke into something sincere.