Some shows styles are ripe for parody or pastiche. The true crime documentary with its blend of captivating interviews, dramatic reconstructions, and analysis of evidence, is one such style. Especially so when a compelling case is laid out to overturn a perceived historical miscarriage of justice. Just as the phenomenal success of Netflix’s Making Of A Murderer has shown. So when American Vandal came along in 2017 – a mockumentary investigating a high school prank – the result was an out of nowhere success.
Season 2 goes all meta by stating in Episode 1 that the success of their previous spray paint vandal docu has led to Netflix funding and national submissions for a fresh vandalism crime to cover. The crime chosen? A series of ‘poo crimes’ by a mysterious prankster calling themselves ‘The Turd Burglar’. Our lead-in introduction shows the first such crime – dubbed ‘The Brownout’. Lemonade in a high school cafeteria was laced with laxatives causing a vast trouser soiling in the school corridors of sudden and epic proportions. And it was all recorded and broadcast on social media.
Odd duck loner Kevin McClane has already been expelled after having confessed to the crimes. But his friend Chloe (Taylor Dearden) is convinced he didn’t do it, that his confession was coerced, and that a cover up is at play.
If you haven’t previously seen American Vandal (as I haven’t) then I know what you are thinking, as my first thoughts when reading the synopsis for season 2 was that this was going to be a very immature gross-out comedy. However, the show’s stroke of genius is this: it plays everything with utmost seriousness.
Yes there are poo gags, obviously, but the show is not structured as a comedy. When sat to be interviewed, each character’s comments and insights are played totally straight. An argument between the documentary-makers about whether or not Kevin intentionally defecated along with everyone else in order to deflect suspicion is funny. That's because it’s given the serious gravitas that a key piece of blood-soaked evidence would otherwise have in a real show. The same is true even when talking about the other crimes like ‘The Poop Piñata’ and ‘The Sh*t Launcher’. Even when discussing the unwitting consumption of cat crapola, and the investigative lead-busting vomiting that ensued.
With that in mind, you can understand that American Vandal is not about the poo crimes themselves. Instead, it uses such faecal folly as a narrative device to weave a complex and compelling mystery. It takes in many dark factors about modern high-school life in an age of prevalent social media. The accused Kevin McClane (Travis Trope) has built a quirky persona for himself because he feels it easier to intentionally stand out than fail at belonging. But his niche vlog about speciality teas where he instructs on correct drinking techniques and his pointedly verbose speech draw both obvious and subtle bullying (such as a popular website mocking him entitled ‘Sh*t Kevin Says).
The documentary makers’ potential other suspect, DeMarcus Tillman, is the superstar basketball player in a school. Which unsurprisingly relies heavily on its sporting reputation for funding. He is played brilliantly by Melvin Gregg. He gives the character a bravado that hides a certain level of stupidity that has been allowed to linger due to his skill on the court. Episode 3 (‘Leaving A Mark’) explores potential academic cover-ups, and the double-standard in how the athletes get away with behaviour that other students get expelled for. The ‘sporting factory’ nature of such schools is examined with several students bemoaning the prejudice inherent on an educational body that has to keep investors happy. Later episodes get much darker, covering cyber-bulling, sexual harassment (and how it isn’t seen as such), revenge porn, and blackmail in a genuinely upsetting way.
The show is constructed using completely on point and modern means. A combination of Twitter feeds, Snapchat footage, one on one interviews, paper trail evidence, CGI timeline animations, Instagram stories, YouTube videos, suspicious Direct Messages, WhatsApp chats, and dramatic reconstructions form a note-for-note copy of shows such as Making Of A Murderer but for the high school generation. Documentary makers Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) dig through the evidence and pick apart inconsistencies. Including how the Turd Burglar’s phone is lumbered with a brief but distinctive (and real life) iPhone glitch that Kevin McClaine didn’t have (nor did DeMarcus).
Damning emails are uncovered. Evidence is presented to teachers or students who suddenly change their story or get evasive (or provide counter-evidence that sets the investigation back). With only 8 episodes at half an hour each, the level of plotting and story-telling is water tight. I certainly did not foresee the outcome at all, but didn’t feel hoodwinked either as all the clues were there at each twist and turn.
If there is one failing to be identified it’s that Peter and Sam behind the camera were major characters in their own right in season 1. This time around they are barely present in the first half and have no arc other than some minor bickering as the investigation heats up. However, that’s not something that affected my enjoyment. You could argue that the show isn’t laugh out loud funny but as I said, the toilet humour is a big number 2 that gives licence to the number 1 of an empathetic exploration of social pressure and modern youth.
And when the truth gets flushed out, the show takes time to talk to each character about the repercussions – revealing a loneliness and self-awareness for even the most seemingly confident kid. In fact, American Vandal would be an excellent show to watch with a high-schooler to show the insidious traps that social pressure and electronic friendships can cause. It all rings utterly true and there isn’t a whiff of the melodramatic ‘Dawson’s Creek’ about these teens at all.
With news that Netflix has decided to cancel the show (although creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda are shopping around for other buyers) you should definitely get in and watch American Vandal whilst you still can. Knowledge of season 1 isn’t necessary, and you will be rewarded with a thoughtful, insightful, well acted and edited show about high-school life. And poop. Because, as docu-maker Sam theorises multiple times, maybe the motivation for the crimes is just that poop is always funny.
Words by Michael Record