Netflix Plays It Straight With New True Crime Satire 'American Vandal'

Series showrunner Dan Lagana discusses building a writers room "with very little comedy experience."
Tyler Golden/Netflix
Netflix's 'American Vandal'

Crime is downright hilarious, right? Netflix hopes so. Ever since HBO reignited TV’s true crime wave in February 2015 with The Jinx, the streamer has capitalized on the genre’s sudden popularity with such offerings as Making a Murderer, The Keepers and Amanda Knox.

Now Netflix hopes viewers will take to a satirical skewering of the genre, American Vandal, debuting Sept. 15.

From creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, the eight-episode first season centers on a whodunit. Only instead of a murder or a disappearance, it's a series of dick drawings (seriously) that suddenly appear on 27 cars at the fictional Hanover High School in Oceanside, Calif. The prime suspect is a lackadaisical delinquent named Dylan Maxwell (22 Jump Street's Jimmy Tatro), long known for his disruptive behavior and his talent for phallic art. The documentarian trying to uncover the truth? Dylan's inquisitive classmate, and Hanover High School morning TV show colleague, Peter Maldonado (Orange Is the New Black's Tyler Alvarez).

"The juxtaposition of the seriousness and the silliness — that's really where the best part of this show exists," says showrunner Dan Lagana of the series, produced by CBS TV Studios, Funny or Die and 3 Arts Entertainment.

True crime has been serious business in Hollywood for two and a half years and the trend isn't showing any signs of slowing down. While there been a few misses (CBS' The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey), the format has expanded to movies (The Witness), podcasts (Crimetown, S-Town, following in the steps of early hit Serial), and scripted series like FX's nine-time Emmy winner The People v. O.J. Simpson as well as NBC's forthcoming Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.

In July, Oxygen officially switched over from a women's lifestyle and entertainment channel to one squarely centered on true crime programs — resulting in a 47 percent rise in primetime total viewership in the third quarter. Oxygen's chief rival, Investigation Discovery, just recorded its 27th consecutive month of primetime growth and ranks as one of the top five ad-supported cable networks among women ages 25-54 thanks to its true crime-centered programming.

Despite the current plethora of true crime projects, creating a true crime satire had its fair share of unique challenges. Lagana, Yacenda and Perrault read more than 250 sample scripts to build a writers room "with very little comedy experience." That included TV veterans (Undateable writing duo Seth Cohen and Amy Pocha), first-time staffers (Glee grad Jessica Meyer) and journalists like New York Times alum Lauren Herstik, who was brought on specifically to help with the investigation aspects of the story. One of the few threads tying the eclectic group together was their shared love for the true crime genre. "On paper, our staff didn't make a ton of sense, but all the pieces really just created the perfect working environment to make this show," says Lagana.

As true crime fans themselves, the writers knew the most important element would be the case at the center of the series. There was a simple mandate: "Mystery first," explains Lagana. "The comedy was honestly an afterthought."

Subsequently, scripts were heavy on notes and stage directions and light on, well, laughs. Each episode opens with the fake opening credits for the fake documentary-within-the-series "made in association with the Hanover High School TV department," as it reads, and exec-produced by fictional teacher Mr. Baxter.

"Everything that you would see in a documentary, we tried to dissect and put it into a script so the reader could understand how seriously we were taking this," says Lagana. "We knew this show would only work if it wasn't just a satire."

However, it's the satirical elements of the project that producers are hoping will help American Vandal stand out from the ever-expanding slate of true crime projects. Says Lagana, "I don't see anyone doing what we’re doing." 

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.