'American Vandal': TV Review

Much more than just "Who drew the dicks?"
9/15/2017

Netflix's satire of the true-crime documentary genre proves surprisingly effective as both a mystery and a high school comedy.

When reviewing Netflix's American Vandal, the biggest dilemma is how much to tell you about Netflix's American Vandal.

The Keepers and Making a Murderer have been word-of-mouth hits for Netflix, coming in with relatively little promotion and generating a relatively long tail of viewer discovery, as opposed to the streaming giant's more familiar star-driven mega-promoted vehicles that sometimes have a weekend of attention (or not even that, if you're Gypsy) and then vanish.

A satirical take on true-crime documentary series like those two shows (and also genre paragons The Jinx and Serial), American Vandal is also likely to be a word-of-mouth hit. That means the worst thing I can do to the show is tell you too much about it or praise it too excessively, because American Vandal isn't a great show, but it's a show that wildly and consistently exceeded my expectations, in large part because it evolves and becomes a different and much better show over its eight-episode run.

Possible critical praise aside, it's safe to say that the biggest star and selling point for American Vandal, except for big fans of Red Band Society co-star Griffin Gluck or YouTube and 22 Jump Street veteran Jimmy Tatro, is ... alliteration. Unless you're significantly more mature than I, "Who drew the dicks?" is an irresistibly catchy tag line, and American Vandal dares you not to giggle just a little with each repetition of that phrase and the more sophisticated — it has alliteration and assonance — "did the dicks."

And if that's all you expect, American Vandal really will leave your expectations in the dust.

Hailing from Funny or Die and created by Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, American Vandal presents itself as a DIY series produced "in association with The Hanover High School TV Department." The series-within-the-series is directed by Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), a AV geek with access to midlevel video equipment and a crusading need to get to the bottom of the mystery of who spray-painted penises on 27 cars in the teachers' parking lot, causing over $100,000 in damages. In the aftermath of the crime, attention turned swiftly to prank-loving burnout Dylan (Tatro), whose proclivity for festooning dry-erase boards and other surfaces with dicks was previously well-established. Since Dylan had a questionable alibi and a known vendetta against one of the bedicked teachers, he was easy to profile, and when fellow student Alex (Calum Worthy) claims he saw Dylan in the act, it's a slam-dunk case. Dylan is expelled from school.

Dylan claims he didn't do the dicks, and Peter and best friend and co-producer Sam (Gluck) believe him. They question the school board's verdict, they doubt Alex's veracity, and they embark on filming a long-form documentary series to exonerate Dylan.

The surface problem that American Vandal faces is two-pronged: It's essentially a one-joke premise with intentionally low stakes, and it's a series created by guys whose background is primarily in shorts. American Vandal feels like the stuff of a clever 10-minute sketch, not an eight-episode series in which nearly all of the episodes are over 30 minutes apiece.

To Yacenda and Perrault's credit, they combat the problems in two ways.

First, American Vandal knows and loves the true-crime documentary genre, and, contrary to my more conservative guesses about the premise's ability to expand across a series run, the show's writers have clearly done forensic analysis of the different narrative beats a story like this can have. Examining alibis, expanding the range of suspects, introducing potentially exculpatory evidence and exploring the conflicted relationship between documentarian and subject are just a few of the ways the story builds without ever feeling like it's spinning its wheels unnecessarily. Serial is the specifically referenced touchstone, but if you're a fan of the genre, you'll recognize the shape of the storytelling without ever feeling like the writers are resorting to spoof. By committing fully to a crusade to free a dick drawer, treating low stakes as dramatic and high, the material proves funny enough.

Second, American Vandal knows and loves its primary genre, but its genre affection also extends to mysteries and high school shows. At its very, very, very best, American Vandal has shades of the first season of Veronica Mars, albeit never rising to the same peak of emotion or, frankly, humor. Still, you can see similar efforts to blend serious mystery elements with high school archetypes. Against all odds, by the end of the season, I actually was curious about who drew the dicks, and I actually cared about how the journey of the series impacted several of the kids.

The performances are reflective of how many different things American Vandal is trying to do. Alvarez, Gluck and Camille Hyde, playing a senior whose driver's license earns her a "head of transpo" credit, have a mixture of precocity and sincerity straight out of a young-skewing Fox or CW dramedy. Camille Ramsey, as Dylan's gamer girlfriend, Mackenzie, comes across as less studied and more raw, which benefits the second half of the season. Tatro initially treats Dylan as broadly comic, but in quiet ways, he's able to explore the idea that Dylan is, himself, a character or an image crafted like many high school personae. A lot of the supporting students and teachers are played by less experienced actors and seem more natural, befitting the documentary side of things.

For all of the show's dedication when it comes to the storytelling device and structure of the genre, its dedication to the genre's aesthetics is less consistent. American Vandal does some things amazingly well, including showing how social media platforms like Snapchat, Facebook and Twitch have left kids today with lives that are wildly overdocumented, with a trail of pictures, videos and online commentary that can be used against them in funny and forensic ways. But American Vandal also has a high, probably excessive, amount of professionalism for a show that was supposed to be cobbled together on a weekly basis by high school students with limited time and resources.

The framing, lighting, editing and general photography are too polished even for committed high school TV practitioners, and that's before you get to the Jinx-y score and the computer-generated re-enactments. Would this bother me if Peter's amateurish and ineptly pretentious home movies weren't a plot point in one of the show's more amusing episodes? I'm not sure. There were also a couple scenes with multicamera setups that I don't think you could justify in the narrative. Things like that only bug me because I'm a nerd.

I think Yacenda, who directed all of the episodes, opted for polish to avoid giving American Vandal the same mockumentary look that was applied to true crime in NBC's Trial & Error, which had bigger stars and a more believably gritty documentary appearance, but wasn't nearly as good.

The first season of American Vandal has a reasonably satisfying conclusion, but I fear that it might have exactly enough open questions for Netflix to order a second season. I'd urge Netflix to, instead, order up Yacenda and Perrault's next series. American Vandal works best because of all the pleasurable ways you don't see it coming. And now I've even spoiled that for you.

Cast: Tyler Alvarez, Griffin Gluck, Jimmy Tatro, Camille Hyde, Camille Ramsey, Calum Worthy, Saxon Sharbino
Creators: Tony Yacenda, Dan Perrault

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