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Perhaps the biggest surprise and pleasure of the first season of American Vandal was that, as the Netflix comedy progressed, it became more and more clever about its depiction of a generation living in a perpetual digital present, ever aware that social media candor and nonstop exposure can be both a blessing and a curse, both an opportunity for entrapment and exoneration. All of that “Who drew the dicks?” stuff was why American Vandal got attention and why it made people giggle, but the show’s resilience as more than a one-joke format hinged on the unexpected depth creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda layered in.
Yet when people talked about American Vandal, it was mostly about dicks.
Air date: Sep 14, 2018
Maybe that’s why the show’s second season finds Perrault and Yacenda leaning much more heavily into theme and generational critique. Promoting that this season’s mystery involves a nemesis dubbed the Turd Burglar (or @TheTurdBurglar, if you prefer) is a way of luring fans back with the puerile, yet viewers are going to quickly discover that although these new episodes represent a much bigger swing from their creators, they’re also less hilarious.
The darkness of the new season is introduced immediately as the premiere presents the unfortunate events of November 6, 2017, at St. Bernardine, a Catholic school in Bellevue, Wash. At lunchtime, doctored lemonade instigated a graphic and widespread case of collective diarrhea, one the school’s bathrooms were ill-equipped to handle and one that was captured on all manner of social media by an anonymous perpetrator calling himself, yes, the Turd Burglar. The event, known as The Brownout, was one of several Turd Burglar-related crimes at St. Bernardine, misdeeds pinned on the aggressively odd Kevin (Travis Tope).
The Turd Burglar case breaks at the perfect time for student filmmakers Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), the California teens who became a sensation when Netflix acquired their documentary series about Dylan Maxwell and those aforementioned drawn dicks. They’re looking for their next project when Chloe (Taylor Dearden), one of Kevin’s friends, reaches out with her school’s story and somehow Peter and Sam get permission to go up to Bellevue and follow this evolving narrative as their senior project.
In terms of auditory properties, the second season of American Vandal transitions from the d-heavy alliteration of “Who drew the dicks?” to the assonance of “Turd Burglar” and just as the first season relied heavily on audiences chortling at every dropped “dick,” there’s little doubt that your enjoyment of the second season will be helped if you find every smuggled “turd” reference at least equally amusing.
But unlike the dicks in the first season, which remained in the realm of juvenile and cartoonish, the poop in the second season is concrete and confrontational. It’s always safe to find frivolous a discussion of whether or not a perfectly illustrated animated penis requires pubic hair, but when explosive diarrhea goes from something people whisper about in embarrassment to something depicted onscreen in some detail, you’re forced recognize that what feels like a prank is really a poisoning, a multitiered health catastrophe and something with consequences that could be expected to go beyond school censure. No amount of analysis could turn dick-drawing into something serious, but American Vandal is quick to chill your chuckles this time around.
At first, there’s still plenty of humor. The premiere probably peaks with an explanation of how Netflix’s acquisition let Peter and Sam polish up the first season, nailing my minor quibbles regarding how professional it looked and mocking several of the genre’s aesthetic crutches including pervasive drone shots. Some new characters are introduced with traits encouraging you to mock them, including Kevin, with his love of ritualized tea drinking, and DeMarcus (Melvin Gregg), nationally ranked basketball star and genial jester.
Both characters and the situation around them get darker as episodes progress. Without ever committing entirely to parodying The Keepers, the series uses some of St. Bernardine’s Catholic imagery as the basis for suggestions of an ominous institutional cover-up, before moving into a bigger point about teen bulling and shame amid the performative popularity of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.
After introducing itself as a show eager to work down a checklist of genre tropes in need of tweaking, the second season isn’t as beholden to just being a take-off on something familiar. Courtesy of Yacenda, who again helmed each episode, it introduces a few new documentary-style techniques, rarely for long. Is there a reason Sam and Peter enlisted expert talking heads to talk about coerced confessions and code switching in the first half of the season without following up on them later? Should there have been more payoff for a very good take on YouTube athlete highlight reels that opens the third episode without going anywhere?
Probably it was determined that all of the winking distracted from the season’s mystery, which is much more tightly delivered. By the second or third episodes I realized I was actually trying to figure out the case, which was never the case with the dick-drawing and the desire to bring the last few episodes became much more about getting answers than just simple amusement. In fact, I barely laughed at all in the season’s homestretch, proving that while American Vandal may function as a parody/satire of Serial and The Staircase and The Jinx, it’s just as capable of being a moody Encyclopedia Brown for the new millennium.
That isn’t always the best use of the characters. The series introduces several possible arcs for Peter and Sam and then discards them, leaving both filmmakers resolutely on the outside of this story and giving both Alvarez and Gluck less to do this time other than lightly disagreeing, without deep motivation, on which witnesses and suspects they believe. They remain pretty regular on-camera presences, undermining a possible contrast that Yacenda and Perrault might be trying to make between those true crime stories in which the filmmakers are deeply personally involved and those presented with the illusion of objectivity. Oh and where did the other members of the crew from last season go and why are so many of them still credited in the faux opening credits? A few people are going to wonder about that and are going to miss favorite supporting players from the first season.
Without anybody truly filling the Dylan Maxwell-shaped hole in some fans’ hearts — Netflix’s strange Emmy strategy for American Vandal made it hard for Jimmy Tatro to get the Emmy nomination he probably deserved — there will still be new favorite characters. Gregg, apparently a Vine star I’ve never heard of, is extremely charismatic, fairly believable in DeMarcus’ basketball scenes and interestingly empathetic as the season goes along. Tope takes Kevin’s oddball affectations and lets you laugh at him for a while before finding real investment. Dearden is great for a while, but my own warmth for her work in Sweet/Vicious left me disappointed that she wasn’t finally given more to do. It actually took me a couple episodes to connect Dearden to her short-lived MTV show, though the second-season cast does have a few familiar co-stars who may prove distracting for TV devotees, especially Sarah Burns and, for all of the members of the show’s key demo who double as LA Law fans, Susan Ruttan.
I’ll be interested in seeing how fans react to the second American Vandal season. I was impressed by the follow-through on the silly initial premise, but wasn’t sure Perrault and Yacenda needed to tempt fate and try again. This second stab at the format is more ambitious and suggests something more repeatable for the future, which is admirable. The diminished mirth is either a bad sign, or just a temporary side effect of the growing process, like the Empire Strikes Back of the American Vandal franchise.
Cast: Tyler Alvarez, Griffin Gluck, Travis Tope, Melvin Gregg, Taylor Dearden, DeRon Horton
Creators: Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault
Premieres: Friday, Sept. 14 (Netflix)
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