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If you loved true crime investigation shows like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, or the podcast Serial, you’re going to love Netflix’s true crime parody American Vandal. If you weren’t a huge fan of those kind of shows, but watched them because everyone in the country was watching them, you’re also going to love American Vandal. Hell, even if you’ve never seen or heard of those shows, you’re going to like American Vandal. Because, in addition to creating a smart, sophisticated, and funny parody of the true crime docudrama genre, American Vandal also crafts a great story, with characters you grow to care about and a mystery you want to see solved.
American Vandal takes place in a suburban California high school where something awful has occurred: On a faculty institute day, when students weren’t supposed to be on the school campus, an unknown vandal spray painted 27 dicks on the 27 faculty and staff cars in the staff parking lot. The security cameras were conveniently down during the crime, and the only eye witness is a high achieving senior who is well-liked by the faculty, but less trusted by the student body.
The school’s deadbeat jokester Dylan Maxwell is accused of the crime and promptly expelled by the school board (criminal charges are all pending, making it look like Dylan might be in for even more punishment down the line). The entire school is convinced he did it. After all, Dylan has a penchant for pulling juvenile pranks and has drawn dicks on school property in the past. But one of the school’s AV nerds, sophomore Peter Maldanado, doesn’t think Dylan could have pulled of a prank of that magnitude. Dylan’s a burnout with no tech skills and this vandal managed to get into the school’s security camera system to cut the feed to the faculty parking lot. Something’s rotten in the state of California and Peter is determined to get to the bottom of it.
I won’t dive into the investigation that unfolds over the course of the show’s eight episodes, but it’s quite the journey. Embracing the hallmarks of teenage culture (house parties that bring random swathes of the school population together, the constant presence of cellphones to record any and all actions, and social media) as the essential tools for a modern investigation (Instagram and Twitter play keys roles in ferreting out suspects and creating intricate timelines), the nuanced investigation that occurs is a thing of beauty. Add that to the incredibly advanced computer reenactments that show up throughout the piece (hilariously depicting key moments in the timeline of events with a level of animation that would almost certainly be beyond our investigators’ abilities), and the parody feels a lot like the real true crime docudramas that continue to pop up throughout the TV landscape.
But the real success of the show isn’t in its ability to pillory the genre, it’s in the show’s remarkable ability to make the audience genuinely care about the outcome of the investigation. Everyone I know who has seen the series started out watching it like I did, looking for a laugh or two about investigating a silly crime. But by the halfway point in the series, each one of us was invested in Dylan’s fate, and rooting for Peter to get to the bottom of the crime. The show is careful to refrain from tipping its hand one way or another, combing through each possible suspect while still refusing to absolve Dylan. There are a number of well-drawn characters to get invested in, and as Peter falls further down the investigatorial rabbit hole, he takes the audience along with him. Kudos to Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda for recognizing that the series would need more than a fun gimmick to survive. And kudos to them for casting winning, relatively unknown actors like Tyler Alvarez (Peter) and Jimmy Tatro (Dylan) to ground the story in their earnest performances.
I highly recommend giving American Vandal a look. You’ll get drawn into this crazy world and become attached to these kids. And, even if you don’t, you’ll find yourself talking about who did the dicks for days after.