In 2016, the TV show Scrotal Recall had a problem.
The British import streaming on Netflix got rave reviews, both from critics and viewers who clicked on the series about a Glasgow-based boy retracing his sexual history after he’s diagnosed with chlamydia, but the show suffered from low-ratings due to lack of word of mouth. According to Netflix, people loved the show, but admitted that they wouldn’t recommend it to friends or family, mostly because they didn’t want to say the word “scrotal” out loud. And so the show made a change: The show formerly known as Scrotal Recall was rechristened Lovesick.
Although Netflix hasn’t provide any information as to why American Vandal — which was canceled Thursday — won’t receive a third season on the streaming platform, it’s easy to imagine the show suffered from a similar difficulty when it comes to person-to-person recommendation. But unlike
Scrotal Recall Lovesick, American Vandal’s indecorousness wasn’t confined to its title: I’ve found that any attempt I’ve made to convince a skeptic to watch the series ends with me babbling, simultaneously trying to describe the show and also convince whomever I’m speaking with that I don’t actually have the sense of humor of a seventh grader (it is almost impossible to describe the show’s pilot season without using the phrase “did the dicks”).
But from a Trojan Horse of dick jokes and baby farting emerged one of the most nuanced portrayals of teenage life and best satire of true crime that’s been put to screen. Although this morning, Netflix announced its cancellation, its spirit of unabashed terrible puns and perfect first-and-last name combinations will live on.
On my Peter Maldonado-style conspiracy cork-board, I have three key points pinned up to make my case for what made the show so fundamentally good:
- The spot-on details of what teenagers actually look and sound like
- Genuinely compelling mysteries
- Surprising tragedy and insight
Let’s start with the first point:
Season 1 follows amateur documentarians Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) and Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) attempting to exonerate high school burnout and known dick-drawer Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) who was expelled from school for allegedly spray-painting dicks on every car in the teacher’s parking lot (the smoking gun? Ball hairs. Dylan never would have forgotten to draw ball hairs).
Unlike the aspirational teens of Gossip Girl and Riverdale who look like 25-year-olds and float through hallways in heels and designer handbags (no backpacks?), the cast of American Vandal actually look and sound like high schoolers. Their names sound like real high schooler names, down to their habit of referring to people by both their first and last: Alex Trimboli, Pat Micklewaite, Nick Songergoth, Sarah Pearson, and Ming Zhan are all people who could be in any yearbook.
Although Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), season 2’s primary suspect, lacks the boyish lovability of Tatro’s Maxwell, McClain is still immediately familiar without descending into parody. He’s the atheist boy in high school who wears a flat cap and says words like “exquisite,” who puts on a rubber horse head mask to DJ middle school parties. Who doesn’t know that kid?
High schools have history: One thing American Vandal captures so effortlessly is the collective shared knowledge that exists among a student body, transcending cliques and “coolness.” Everyone knows Alex Trimboli is a little b—h who lied about getting a handjob from Sarah Pearson. Everyone has an opinion on the Way Back Boys, Dylan Maxwell’s group of stoner friends who make inane prank videos for YouTube. Everyone went to Nana’s party. With a few Snapchat videos, American Vandal welcomes the audience into a biosphere that feels not just plausible, but entirely lived-in and familiar.
The crimes were equally grounded and plausible: American Vandal is not a murder mystery. It’s a show about crimes that could have happened in any suburb, crimes that would be more discussed in group-chats that the national news.
Which brings us to point 2: Both seasons of American Vandal were genuinely compelling mysteries.
Even if you began watching the show because you were reluctantly amused by the dick jokes, before long you were swirling clues and alibis through your head, trying to figure out who drew the dicks. There are multiple suspects, new motivations and surprising details that come to light—every aspect of a case that would entrance a viewer through a murder like The Stairway is equally compelling when it’s applied to a case about spray-paint penises.
For season 2, Sam and Peter left their home turf to travel to Washington state in order to discover the true identity of the “Turd Burglar” who’s been terrorizing a prestigious Catholic high school with poop-related crimes. Although the season itself suffered from some sophomore-slump unevenness, the mystery unfurled with an Agatha Christie-style reveal that’s intricately plotted but also definitely plausible.
But the real magic of American Vandal always came from (point 3) it’s emotional depth.
In the Emmy-nominated finale of the first season, Dylan Maxwell becomes a hero among the student body after he’s exonerated and the documentary about him has gone viral. He enters a house party to cheers of “Vandal! Vandal! Vandal! Vandal!” He forced Peter, his documentarian, to take a shot. Someone in the crowd suggests they put on American Vandal at the party with a projector. “Yo, this is dope,” Dylan says, excited. “The way you got like the shadows and my face? This is sick.”
The camera focuses on Dylan’s face as it sinks from elation to humiliation while the audio from the first episode plays testimonials from other students, calling Dylan and his friends idiots, calling him a liar. “Dylan’s a burnout loser, of course he did it,” someone had said. Dylan leaves the party to smoke a cigarette outside. He didn’t do the vandalism, but now he knows that no one expected any better of him. Season 1 ends with Dylan actually committing an act of dick-drawing vandalism (caught on video camera this time) thinking he could get away with it. Everyone thought he was a dick-drawer, so why shouldn’t he be?
But that episode also included another poignant confrontation. Sarah Pearson, the girl Sam and Peter (and we, the audience) had been gleefully investigating with regards to her handjob history, pulls Peter aside.
“You put people on blast, and for what?” she asks.
“I had to find the truth,” Peter stammers righteously, confronted by a beautiful, older girl at his first high school party.
“What did my hookup list have to do with the truth?” she asks. “It didn’t prove anything.”
She’s right. While we were watching the documentary, the validity of Alex Trimboli’s claim that he hooked up with Sarah Pearson seemed essential! How else are we to prove that he’s a little b—h who might have been lying about seeing Dylan Maxwell at the scene of the crime? But in that party scene, Sarah becomes a real person, a human being standing in front of Peter humiliated because her hook-up list has become a fun factotum to debate and discuss in the viral true-crime mystery of the moment.
In a culture that can barely disguise its salivation over a salacious murder, American Vandal reflected back the inhumanity of our collective enthrallment with a story about dicks.
While the themes in season 2 are less tightly-knit, the reveal that the Turd Burglar was an Orient-Express-style group endeavor of students (and one teacher) blackmailed after being catfished leads to a poignant reflection on the loneliness of our internet lifestyles. DeMarcus Tillman, the school’s star athlete, feel for a catfish because he felt exploited by his friends who celebrate his stature without knowing the real him. “I don’t even know if he likes me anymore,” DeMarcus wrote about his best friend who had been talking to basketball recruiters about him behind his back, “I don’t know if anyone does.”
The second season’s final monologue became a little preachy, deriding the evils of isolation, and overlooking the season’s more interesting commentary on class, race, and the pedestaled privilege afforded to student athletes. But the glitches of a sophomore season are an expected TV phenomena, and one that I had no doubts would be finessed with a third season.
The delight of American Vandal existed in its idiosyncrasy, at once unapologetically potty-brained (every episode title of season 1 is a dick-pun; season 2 was poop jokes) and philosophically minded. It was a Peabody-award winning series that gave us montages of teens farting on babies, an incisive indictment of exploitation documentary culture with a plot-pointing hinging on whether or not a character was a little b—h (for the record, he was).
American Vandal was too good for this world, and if couldn’t appreciate it, we didn’t deserve it.