The mockumentary handily pulls off its lewd gag and serves up a surprisingly compelling mystery
American Vandal, Netflix’s send-up of true-crime series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, isn’t for everyone. There’s maybe one too many d–k jokes, more glamour shots of toilets than anyone would probably care to see, and an overwhelming amount of shaky-cam footage.
But as an examination of today’s teen culture, it’s surprisingly perceptive. The series, created by Funny or Die’s Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, works as a story-within-a-story: On one level it’s a documentary being filmed and edited by Hanover High’s finest mini-Andrew Jareckis, a pair of students named Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), who want to find out whether the class doofus Dylan (Jimmy Tatro) really spray-painted 27 you-know-whats onto the cars in the faculty parking lot of their school. On a more meta level, their actions wind up influencing their classmates’ reputations, along with their own.
And that’s where the series shines. The vast cast of characters — ranging from the protest-happy senior class president to the attention-seeking loner who’s still wearing braces, from the unanimously considered hottest girl in school to the nerdiest-looking kid who gets along with everyone, from the no-nonsense football coach to the overeager young history teacher — all have secrets and potential motives for either pulling the penile prank or throwing Dylan under the bus.
Having such an expansive web of players to work with helps the series make its installments feel whole, despite its, well, flaccid premise. The idea of satirizing true-crime docs through the lens of two teen wannabe filmmakers sounds like a nifty idea for a single sketch instead of eight longer-than-half-hour episodes, but the longer run time allows Yacenda and Perrault to dig deep into the nuances of high-school friendships, hookups, and rivalries. And they deftly take advantage of that real estate: Midway through the series, a standout scene between Peter and Sam forces the two to investigate each other’s potential involvement in the lewd doodles and results in the best friends confronting each other’s obsession and oversight with the case. They end up putting, on camera, secrets they’ve shared with each other that they would rather not have everyone see, if it were not for the fact that they want to capture everything in their footage. It’s oddly true to the way two teens would argue with each other; both fail to understand how to compromise and move about their rift in a mature way.
Of course, American Vandal has plenty of lighter moments too, many of which have nothing to do with the potty humor that forms its foundation. The series gives Yacenda and Perrault a chance to skewer YouTube influencers, teen texting habits, gaming culture, and even Kiefer Sutherland. (Dylan must have been binging 24 before getting into graffiti-ing. Who knew?) And then there are little details that’ll delight viewers who get into the story: Minor players get their own arcs throughout, much of the “footage” the two collect are filmed vertically like most smartphone videos, and Alvarez gives a particularly impressive performance in his voiceover, adopting the cadence of professional documentarians yet letting certain teen biases slip through. (When he talks about a classmate who somehow got invited to a party he didn’t, his voice cracks just enough to hint at his anger and jealousy. It’s delightful.)
Alvarez isn’t the only one to give a note-perfect performance, though. The series cast relatively unknown teen actors who manage to capture the ridiculous drama with deadpan line-readings and an air of naïveté, and the adult players look just wary enough of being filmed for a student’s “documentary” while letting their younger counterparts steal the scenes.
The only reason I’m adding that minus to the A grade is because American Vandal sometimes looks a little too good to believably be the creation of Peter and Sam and a never-seen “Mr. Baxter” in the Hanover High TV department. The 3-D renderings of what may have happened in the parking lot (and elsewhere) look slightly too polished, the B-roll too studied, and even the “secret filming” of reluctant interviewees too choreographed. Yet, to Yacenda and Perrault’s credit, it’s clear they’ve paid close attention to the true-crime format. They’re both poking fun at and honoring the genre at the same time — think Documentary Now! without the starry lineups, or Andy Samberg’s faux sports documentaries without as many tangents — and better yet, they manage to make a high-school dramedy work around the “documentary” itself.
All in all, it’s an impressive tightrope walk. And look, even if you never buy into the series’ stakes, you’ll simply want to see whether — so sorry in advance — Dylan gets off. A-