‘American Vandal’ Strikes (and Shines) Again

Teen documentary filmmakers Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund return to investigate another high school prank in this Netflix mockumentary.

Oct 1, 2018 at 5:02 pm

click to enlarge Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck as Peter Maldonado (left) and Sam Ecklund (right). - Courtesy of Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix
Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck as Peter Maldonado (left) and Sam Ecklund (right).
American Vandal (Netflix) was one of my favorite TV surprises of 2017. We all knew The Handmaid’s Tale was going to be great, but who could guess a mockumentary about a high school prankster could be so compelling and hilarious — let alone go on to garner an Emmy nomination? Premiering last September with little fanfare, the first season delivered a fitting satire of the ubiquitous true crime genre while showcasing a young cast of characters that seemed all too real.

Despite its popularity and critical acclaim, I didn’t expect another season for some reason. As a miniseries, it told a very complete story. So I was delighted when Netflix dropped a trailer for this second installment just weeks before its September premiere.

(Fictional) teen documentary filmmakers Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund (Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck) return to investigate another irreverent high school prank. While Season 1 focused on mysterious penis graffiti defacing teachers’ cars, this time the crime is even messier: After drinking laxative-laced lemonade—and a number of other poop-related pranks—dozens of students got explosive diarrhea across the school.

Before Peter and Sam delve into this new case, they acknowledge the first season in a meta tip of the hat, explaining that they’ve seen great success after their documentary was bought by Netflix (they even appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah!) and the streaming giant greenlit another season after a student from St. Bernardine high school in Bellevue, Wash., reached out to the guys in an effort to uncover who was behind this series of unsavory events. (The series will also serve as Peter and Sam’s senior project.)

A new case unfortunately means no Jimmy Tatro, who starred as the dense but lovable accused vandal Dylan Maxwell in Season 1. And there’s no character that quite lives up to him, but Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) is pretty great. Kevin has been nabbed for the gag, expelled from school and on house arrest awaiting his trial (this is some Rajneeshee-leve food poisoning, after all). Never without his newsboy cap or artisanal hot tea, Kevin isn’t exactly the most popular guy. He speaks with a vaguely pretentious cadence and takes himself way too seriously, and at the same time comes off as a really sympathetic guy. Damn it if he doesn’t fully commit to being himself even if his interests are guaranteed to be ridiculed. Tope nails his portrayal of this hyper-specific type of kid that is somehow so universally recognizable.

Viewers get to meet a ton of authentic characters from St. Bernadine as Peter and Sam descend onto the school, set on proving Kevin’s innocence — or at least determining who really is the “Turd Burglar.” That’s the name used by the unknown assailant, who not only contaminated the cafeteria lemonade, but also arranged for poo to shoot out of T-shirt launchers at a pep rally and filled a class’ pinata with, you guessed it, more actual crap, which was promptly whacked and projected onto students. The Turd Burglar used social media to take credit for the stunts, taunt students and share footage of his victims. (Funnily enough, these clips from the show have been circulating on social media IRL, sparking some to believe the footage — of several students pooping their pants in school — is real. Which I’m sure is by design.) The hunt for the Turd Burglar takes some interesting twists and turns, ultimately leading to a solid whodunnit reveal.

Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, the real creators of American Vandal, know dicks and poop are inherently funny, but they’re made all the more hilarious when given such a serious platform. Peter and Sam approach their work with the gravitas of serious true-crime documentaries, elevating what could be cheap laughs into genius comedy.

But American Vandal doesn’t just set its aim on skewering that genre — it’s also a keen satire of high school itself. It finds humor in the different types of kids that populate high schools across the country and their idiosyncratic experiences. It also speaks to genuine issues high schoolers — everyone, really — face, like the pressure to fit in and fulfill a role prescribed by parents, teachers or peers and the need to be loved.

Brace yourself: This literal shit show just might hit you in the feels.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern