Looking Back at 2010s Series: American Vandal (Netflix Series)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I’m changing it up a little this time–talking about a TV series in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Even though I am a movie guy, there are some shows I like to make time for.

And I rewatched both seasons of the Netflix Original series “American Vandal” again recently, so I figured, it is a 2010s treasure and I should look back on it.

“American Vandal” is something special. What drew me in was its ambition to parody/make homage to the true-crime documentary shows (such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”) that crazy white people seem to go crazy for. (And as a white person myself who saw half the first season of “Murderer” with mild interest and enjoyed the entirety of “The Jinx” with great interest…I kind of get it.) It’s a mockumentary series that makes it appear to be told from a teenage perspective, as a high-school AV crew makes a documentary series as they investigate an impactful crime on campus. What kind of crimes? Well…season 1 is finding out who spray-painted phallic images all over the vehicles in the high-school faculty parking lot and season 2 is about who might have caused all of the students in the school cafeteria to defecate themselves.

Side-note: I first found out about “American Vandal” because my fiancee’s mother thought it actually was a true-crime show–when she described the crimes to me, I knew something was off about it. That’s when I decided to check it out and it became clear to me that it was a mockumentary rather than an actual documentary (…mostly because I recognized an actor from “22 Jump Street” playing a high-school student).

So I was intrigued, because I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format and I was curious to see how this would turn out.

Watching season 1, I was of course laughing at how seriously this silly juvenile crime (drawing penises all over teachers’ cars) was taken in the same purpose as “Making a Murderer.” But then, the rug was pulled out from under me and I realized something. This series was not particularly interested in comedy to sell us on its true intent. Instead, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda used humor to lure us in and then went in for the kill (so to speak) about how heavy the consequences are for an underachiever who is accused of a ridiculous prank that could ruin his future. That stuff is handled in gripping serious manner, and rather than accuse the filmmakers of inconsistent storytelling, we realize that they’ve been setting us up for it the whole time, because what they really wanted to do was provide effective social commentary about the way high-school teens are treated and even how they treat themselves in times of crisis. If you’re a class-clown, you’re the prime suspect for a heinous prank that you may have had no involvement in. And if you didn’t, hardly anyone will believe your story. Your teachers won’t trust you, some won’t listen, and even more unfortunate, the rest will throw you under the bus because they refuse to believe you.

I won’t give away the ending, but we’re left on a very bitter note that provides a cautionary warning relative to how high-school underachievers are treated on campus.

As good as season 1 is, I think season 2 is even better.

The creators of the show within the show, high-school sleuths Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), have gained national popularity due to their “American Vandal” series that documented their previous investigation. They receive numerous inquiries to use their techniques to solve more crimes (including a murder!), but they only answer one: an incident at a Catholic high school during which the students who drank the lemonade at lunch, which was laced with laxatives, were forced to defecate all over campus in horrid fashion at costly expenses. The culprit is anonymously addressed as “The Turd Burglar.” And that’s not all–other poop-related pranks occur on campus. A piñata turns out to be filled with excrement, and a t-shirt launcher at a pep rally…well, you get the idea. One student steps up the principal and the police to accuse a friend of the crimes, and the friend, an oddball outcast named Kevin (Travis Tope), is brought in to confess. Kevin is kicked out of school and placed under house arrest. But there’s one problem: he was a victim of the initial cafeteria prank as well. Unless he “shat” himself on purpose, something’s wrong here. Thus begins another heavy investigation to see who else might have been involved and when/where the Turd Burglar might strike again…

OK, so “American Vandal” features a lot of gross, juvenile humor. But like I said, it’s a bait-and-switch type of thing. Season 2 has even more to say about teenage life than what we thought Season 1 covered already. This time, without giving too much away, it’s about how teens live most of their lives on social media, which is a common problem today (as many paranoid adults will make you believe).

(Yeah, I know I get analytical in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series, but in the case of this series, I want people to go in not knowing much. I’m just summing up the lessons at work and then moving along.)

Despite its disgusting setups, “American Vandal” is a wonderful series. I would love to see it progress into a potential season 3. Maybe the next one will feature a crime centered on that “time of the month” for high-school girls…you know they would go there.

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