American Vandal season 2 doesn't stink: EW review
The second season of Netflix’s American Vandal arrives on the streaming service Sept. 14. Because all truth is relative, EW TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich decided to approach the new season from different perspectives. Then they talked about it here! Note: This review is spoiler-free (unless you want to know literally nothing about the new season).
DARREN: When American Vandal debuted last year, the eight-episode mockumentary series became whatever a Big Hit is in Netflix’s post-ratings universe, earning acclaim for its cockeyed depiction of a high school docu-team investigating an act of spray-paint criminality. Like a lot of great TV this decade, the true-crime spoof felt like a one-off phenomenon that couldn’t be repeated — and so it has now been repeated!
American Vandal season 2 features a new mystery in a new school, with a new cast of suspects. It’s not a complete reset — apparently the Hanover High School TV department has a big travel budget — but the attempt to anthologize American Vandal is still risky. Fortunately, we’re approaching this new season from two different perspectives, Kristen, like a couple talking heads with opposing theories WHO MIGHT BOTH BE SUSPECTS! I’ve seen Vandal season 1, but you’re coming into season 2 cold. What are your impressions of the new season?
KRISTEN: I knew enough about Vandal season 1 (spoofy take on crime docs, featuring teenage sleuths and cartoon penises) that the brief recap in the season 2 premiere wasn’t really necessary — though I did appreciate the meta nature of it, as our star investigators, Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), recount their rise to It Show fame and Netflix’s subsequent offer to bankroll another investigation.
The show seems to have topped itself by creating a crime that’s even more juvenile than hand-drawn dicks: This year’s perpetrator goes by the name of the Turd Burglar, for reasons that become explicitly and disgustingly clear about two minutes into the premiere. While I’m definitely not a fan of poop jokes (to the point where I can’t even watch the Mr. Hankey episodes of South Park), Vandal’s chief source of humor seems to come from the tension between a patently absurd situation being presented with unwavering gravity. And, perhaps, the intentional repetition of ridiculous words and phrases like “horchata” and “googly eyes.” It’s extremely stupid, Darren, but Lord help me, I’m giggling. What about you — is the new season living up to the original’s LOL level so far?
DARREN: I think you’re right to identify “unwavering gravity” as the chief concern for this series, Kristen. Season 2 replicates the feeling that you’re watching a very teenaged notion of a Super Serious Documentary, with Alvaraz-as-Maldonado doing his best Sarah Koenig impression. But goofy as the absurdity is, season 1 wound up being thoughtful, thrilling, and even a bit sad as it went along, with a twisty narrative wrapping new mysteries in newer enigmas. Vandal 2 can’t compare for a feeling of discovery, and the characters feel a little less real, in that uncanny-valley mockumentary way where The Office season 1 seemed to star relatable humans and The Office season 7 featured Special Guest Star Warren Buffett. (One casting decision in particular feels like a gigantic spotlit clue for anyone with a Netflix subscription.)
But the new setting is super-intriguing! St. Bernardine Catholic School is a ritzy private institution with basketball on the brain and secrets behind secrets. In an ideal scenario, American Vandal has to be a two-sport athlete, making fun of the excesses of true-crime entertainment even as it conjures up an involving mystery. Are you genuinely intrigued by the Mystery of the Turd Burglar, Kristen? (Hee hee, turds?) And I’m curious, how do you think Vandal compares to Trial & Error, another docu-satire that I know you enjoy (whereas I’ve watched, er, one episode!)?
KRISTEN: What’s interesting about Vandal’s approach to its mysteries is how Peter and Sam’s primary focus in both is to prove who didn’t do it — whether it was the first season’s accused dick artist, Dylan Maxwell, or this season’s alleged culprit, Kevin McClain. Boardwalk Empire’s Travis Tope gives a standout performance as Kevin — a fastidious tea connoisseur whose aura of detached self-importance masks normal teenage insecurities — and I’m more invested in Pete and Sam proving Kevin’s innocence than anyone else’s guilt. By the end of episode 4, Vandal was starting to feel a little formulaic to me — identify, then eliminate, new suspect — to the point where I’m tempted to skip ahead to episode 8 and learn the Turd Burglar’s true identity. That’s something I would never say with Trial & Error — perhaps because NBC’s legal mockumentary focuses more on the heartfelt stupidity of the characters than the crimes themselves.
That said, I also laughed out loud at least once with each Vandal episode — and you definitely can’t say that about most comedies. As for a grade, I’m leaning toward a B or B+. What’s your verdict, Darren?
DARREN: I find Kevin less interesting, possibly because I’m comparing him in prime-suspect terms to season 1’s Dylan (played by Jimmy Tatro in a lovable-dumbo performance for the ages.) But by episode 3, characters like Melvin Gregg’s relentlessly quoteable DeMarcus started to grab me, and the mystery itself assumed some loftier dimensions. My internal debate is between a B+ and an A-, so let’s average ourselves to a B+.
And I’m excited to write a bit more about this season’s latter-episode twists after the show debuts! I’m not sure season 2 will cause as much of a stir as the first outing, but it feels like a successful attempt to franchise-ify American Vandal’s peculiar mix of lowbrow comedy, highbrow style, and an ongoing portrait of the American high school as a clash between dueling realities, where the best truths are always fiction.