What’s the one thing high-schoolers find funnier than penises? Poop. So, naturally, that’s exactly what season 2 of the mockumentary American Vandal (premiering Sept. 14 on Netflix) is about: Young documentarians Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) travel to an elite Catholic school to investigate the Turd Burglar, an anonymous social-media persona who poisoned the school’s lemonade with laxatives, causing students to lose control of their bowels. Whereas Peter and Sam were trying to prove that Dylan (Jimmy Tatro) wasn’t guilty in season 1, this time around there are two suspects: school oddball Kevin (Travis Tope) and star athlete DeMarcus (Melvin Gregg).
“We hope to be more complex and evolved than season 1 as we get sillier and more stupid with the crime,” co-creator and executive producer Dan Perrault tells EW.
Below, Perrault and fellow creator/EP Tony Yacenda break their silence on the new season and explain how The Jinx and The Thin Blue Line inspired them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with this season’s crime?
TONY YACENDA: We were looking at a bunch of different true-crime documentaries that we loved, and different tropes that we hadn’t hit, and the way these great documentaries steer us and manipulate us, and one of the things that the particularly dark ones do is they show you these really brutal, dark crimes. We thought, “What’s the dark, horrific version of our show?” And that’s poop covering the halls of a Catholic school. That was kind of the genesis of it. We wanted to do something different, something darker, something that drew from The Jinx and Errol Morris.
You’ve known for a while that you were setting it in a Catholic school. Why a Catholic school and not another high school in the area?
DAN PERRAULT: Well, we wanted to have a very different look and feel to season 1. Season 1 is obviously set in Southern California. We wanted something darker, something colder. First of all, that’s why we went to the North, and Portland was a great location for production. But specifically why a Catholic school? I’d like to widen that to it being a private school and how money works, and how certain people may be protected above others. That’s something you get from prestigious private school that you might not get from a public school in Southern California, or anywhere for that matter.
YACENDA: So, it takes place in Bellevue, Washington, actually. We wanted this idea of there’s a lot of tech money up there, and we wanted this idea of privilege and class and who could get away with this crime to hold a little more weight in a school that has a big reputation and needed to recruit. It’s a little more collegiate, and we felt like a cover-up could feel a little bit more sinister in a Catholic school.
PERRAULT: This is a school of great pride and tradition. So you think about a school with such an embarrassing prank like this, there’s more to lose than you’d have from the school in season 1. We found it as an effective way to raise the stakes.
Season 1 was about perception and stereotypes in schools. It sounds like the theme of season 2 is very much about privilege and class. Is that a fair comparison?
YACENDA: It’s about privilege and class, but I think — because the Turd Burglar is an online entity that’s terrorizing people in cyberspace — there’s kind of fertile thematic ground for us to talk about the duplicity of kids’ lives now. They’re kind of living life twice: once at school and [once on social media]. They have these social-media lives where they’re presenting themselves a certain way. We see how vulnerable these people can be because they’re not even trying to find a person, they’re trying to find this cyber-entity.
Apart from opening with a gruesome event, in what other ways did The Jinx and Errol Morris inspire the season?
YACENDA: I think a lot of it has to do with structure, actually, and storytelling. You know the major facts of the case for season 1 halfway through the first episode, and you’re just analyzing it from different people’s perspectives, kind of like what they did with Serial, [versus] what they do in The Jinx or Thin Blue Line. So basically the distinction is, instead of putting all of the facts of the case up front and analyzing it, they’re rationing these turning points and making it more of a cinematic story, where you’re introduced to major characters later in the game and the turning points are kind of constructed by the documentarian as a storyteller.
PERRAULT: I think it’s fair to say that the story turns and evolves to a larger extent than we did in season 1. In season 1, we literally have Peter outline, “Here’s what we know.” Peter the character is rationing the story points in a more complex way in season 2, where he as a documentarian knows things that we’re not going to know right off the bat.
YACENDA: In The Jinx, you don’t know who Robert Durst is until halfway through the first episode, and you don’t know that he potentially killed his wife until the end of the episode. You don’t learn about the third murder until halfway through episode 3, but all of these things have been done. So we wanted to have fun with some of those tropes in season 2 and make it like the darkest, most cinematic version of a poop crime possible.
Who are the main players we’ll encounter this season?
PERRAULT: Kevin is one of the main subjects of our season. What’s the best PC way to describe him?
YACENDA: I would say the question with Kevin is whether or not he’s the Turd Burglar because he’s bullied by his students. We wanted this year to kind of be a modern look at bullying in a school setting where it’s not the version you’ve seen a million times where people are pushing kids up against lockers and stealing their lunch money. It’s more like kind of laughing with them but really laughing at them, and it’s a much tougher distinction to make, especially on social media. So we’re analyzing whether or not this kid was actually bullied to the point that he could do something like that. Meanwhile, this guy DeMarcus is somebody that there’s some evidence that he could be connected to the Turd Burglar, but there’s obvious reasons why this school would protect their golden goose and the number-four [basketball] player in the country. It’s a question of sort of A or B.
Is there anything else you guys wanted to add?
PERRAULT: It was really fun and interesting and something we want to do more of — to shoot outside of L.A. It definitely has a different feel and look than season 1.
YACENDA: Embracing the look and feel of Bellevue, Washington, adds a lot of new characters, and that was a lot of fun. Just like pulling background casting from the Pacific Northwest, I think it adds a really nice texture that’ll differentiate it from season 1.
PERRAULT: Everything from the physical look to the actors themselves feels very different. We got to work with a great crew up there, in addition to actors, many of whom didn’t feel like actors, and a lot of them hadn’t acted before. Not to mention, we used people who literally weren’t, in no sense of the word, actors. We had professors speak, and they were really just talking about the nature of police interrogation. Technically we gave them a character name, but they were essentially playing themselves.
YACENDA: That’s one of the tools we used this year that we didn’t use in season 1. To even further blur the lines between real documentary and fictional narrative, we would interview real experts, criminal psychologists, and use their expertise and ask them questions that are related to the crime and then cut them in to the episode. Obviously, they feel completely unscripted and [like] interview subjects because they are unscripted and they are just interview subjects.
PERRAULT: One thing we said about season 1 is that we strive to make it feel real enough that if you walked in and saw your friend or roommate watching it, you wouldn’t know it was a mockumentary until a few minutes in. I’d like to think we get closer to that goal this year. We always strive to make it as real as possible, despite the silliness of the crimes. I think the humor only works when we do that. Hopefully, it’s going to feel a lot more real and grounded more so than season 1.
YACENDA: The flip side of that is that we could get even more cinematic with it because one of the things we’re introducing is re-enactments like you see in The Jinx, or Keepers, or Thin Blue Line — kind of stylized, slow-motion recreations of feet walking into a room and somebody’s describing a scenario. So we get to see these brutal poop crimes in hilariously slow-motion, desaturated environments.
Did you encounter any kind of pushback with these recreations of the poop crime?
YACENDA: Just like I’m sure they dealt with in these true-crime documentaries. You do want to see the mutilated body and the bloody room, but it’s tough to look at. The question back and forth internally with the network was like, how gross do we want to get with the poop? All of these conversations were the very dumb, juvenile versions of conversations that I’m sure happened in very serious, important documentaries.
PERRAULT: And more literally like the texture of the poop, getting the poop to the realest point possible. There were some poops that were a little too liquidy. There were some that looked like crumpled-up peanut butter cups. It was a matter of getting that right middle ground, if you will. Not all poops are the same, so it was also a matter of variety too.