True crime series have saturated our screens at a rapid pace in recent years, from dramatized miniseries like The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and NBC’s recent Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders to docuseries like Making a Murderer, The Jinx and The Keepers. They’re compelling, they’re addictive, they’re headline snatching and… they’re getting a little ubiquitous at this point. Which means the genre is ripe for a parody. Enter American Vandal (Netflix).
Adopting the format of a serious high school student-produced web series, mockumentary American Vandal investigates the fallout of a costly campus prank pinned on a likely assailant. When 27 faculty cars at Hanover High School are vandalized — spray-painted with bright red, cartoonish penises, no less — senior Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) emerges as the obvious suspect. The disruptive class clown is infamous for his crude doodles, often left on the whiteboards of unsuspecting teachers.
Dylan is expelled, the penises are painted over and Hanover looks to move on. But amateur filmmaker and sophomore Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) questions Dylan’s guilt and launches a full investigation of the crime, interviewing students, teachers and family members, concocting new theories and eventually creating a world of trouble for the entire school.
Dicks are funny. But the real humor in this satire comes from how seriously Peter takes this documentary. As the season unfolds, it’s actually easy to forget the whole show is a farce. The somber imagery in the title sequence harkens back to that of Making a Murderer, and Vandal commits all the way down to the credits, where Peter and his buddy Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) are listed as the filmmakers, with their teacher Mr. Baxter as executive producer. There are digital recreations of the crime scene and other related events, just like you’d see on an episode of 20/20. And your high school A.V. club has nothing on these kids’ moviemaking skills — the directing and cinematography is genuinely impressive (because they’re executed by actual professionals, obviously), something the students cleverly address as they watch the series unfold.
Would-be culprit Dylan is believably dopey, yet frustratingly hysterical. Tatro is terrific in the role — all of these young actors are! They portray realistic, understated teens that totally could get caught up in a school saga revolving around penis graffiti. And make no mistake: the audience gets sucked in, too. Vandal paints a mystery with unexpected twists and turns not unlike the bingeable series it lampoons. The more seriously the characters take it, the funnier it becomes.
While there are references to the many popular true true crime series out there, it’s the podcast Serial that takes the brunt of the spoofing, and Peter makes a very convincing Sarah Koenig. He gets too close to Dylan and begins to form his own biases, not unlike Koenig with Serial’s first subject, Adnan Syed. When Peter and Sam find themselves grouped with their possible suspects, they try to become unbiased and investigate one another as if they could have committed the deed.
As the student-produced web series within the show goes viral, social media begins to impact the ongoing documentary. Obsessed viewers (“American Fandals”) offer tips and theories. Peter includes any piece of information even tangentially related to the case in his documentary, to the chagrin of those whose secrets are unnecessarily exposed. Hanover faculty come to find the show and Peter himself a distraction on campus, and the tables are truly turned on our young filmmaker.
In many ways, Vandal exhibits a self-awareness and exposes the flaws of the genre that actual documentaries by and large rarely acknowledge. We’ve all seen a doc that takes itself way too seriously; rarely do we get a truly unbiased view from even investigative journalism-backed broadcasts. Dare I say, it even exposes the human flaws so often played out within the walls of a school — the tendency to blame the troublemaker, the reluctance to speak out on another’s behalf, damaging gossip, moderately corrupt faculty. The list goes on.
Funny Or Die and CollegeHumor alumni Tony Yacenda (Vandal co-creator, writer and director) and Dan Perrault (co-creator and writer) manage to not only elevate a dick joke into a four-hour mockumentary series and successfully satirize true crime, but also capture a genuine high school experience in an inventive way that’s familiar but fresh, hilarious and so compelling.
CONTACT JAC KERN: @jackern