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'American Vandal' And The Art Of The High School Docu Drama

You need to binge on this true crime mockumentary—truth, lies, and penis graffiti!
by Karl R. De Mesa | Sep 30, 2017
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Before this series, I thought the art of the high school TV drama had pretty much played itself out.

All of it just went back to tropes that offered familiar entertainment with occasional novelty spice like reheated pizza, that even the promising Riverdale became just another brick on the mildly interesting wall of storylines-we’ve-all-seen-before. Not so with Netflix’s American Vandal.

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How did Netflix do it? By confronting head-on and lampooning the streaming giant’s most identifiable of genres: the true crime TV documentary.

What makes it thoroughly binge-able is how fast the first two episodes move. The comedic aspect of the season is established and left there for you to makes heads or tails of, while the mystery itself is offered as both bait and aperitif.

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“Why am I interviewing you?” asks high school noob documentarist Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez). “Because everyone thought I did it. That I drew the dicks!” replies the gruff-voiced and pneumatically carved Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro).

This eight episode (30-minutes each) series is about Hanover High School, a typical secondary community institution in a small town that’s been thrown into unlikely controversy: penises.

On a sunny afternoon, 27 dicks were spray-painted across buildings and cars. All in all, thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. Senior prankster and all around dumb jock Dylan Maxwell is instantly accused of the graffiti spree. Why? Because he has a history of drawing dicks around campus. From there, everything is about solving the mystery of the dicks.

Rocked by this act of vandalism, the AV Club’s filmmakers, led by Maldonado, take it upon themselves to reveal that all is not what it seems in this allegedly open-and-shut case, especially since the top suspect uncharacteristically pleads innocence. Maxwell finds an ally in the documentarists and together they launch into their investigation with methods worthy of the Spotlight team.

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I loved Netflix’s Making a Murderer. I liked The Keepers even less, but still thought it stood head and shoulders above many docu-dramas in scope and ambition. American Vandal takes all the great elements of those series and takes upon itself to become the deft, tongue-in-cheek, serious but not really serious satire that I did not know I wanted. Until I watched it. And boy, oh boy, did I dig it.

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Did Maxwell really draw all those dicks? If not, who committed crime? What’s clear is that #WhoDrewTheDicks’ narrative is equal parts mystery, investigative documentary, and high school theater of raging hormones and feelings. 

It makes itself easy to like, too. If you enjoyed Spinal Tap then you’ll be sure to enjoy this one. There’s even a moment on the first episode where you’re thinking to yourself “did this really happen and is this a re-enactment docu?” But by episode three it’s clear this is a fictional true crime tale about dicks. And, you know what? I don’t care!

After the pilot, the charm and wit of the characters shine through and by then the hooks are in. Spending time with the AV club and investigative team of Maldonado, Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), and Gabi Granger (Camille Hyde), is a real pleasure. They’re straight men in this atmosphere of truth, lies, and penis crimes, fired with original zeal. They’re mining a goldmine of material with people they have direct access to, equipped with the school’s cameras and editing machines.

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The fact that they’re teens also adds to the whole soup of objectivity versus biography. When your childhood crush’s boyfriend is revealed by a screenshot to have cheated, do you tell your hot friend or reveal it through an episode of the documentary?

The perfect parody tone never lets up and the writers, who’ve worked on many Funny or Die and College Humor videos, decided it best to have a twist every 20 minutes, leading the viewer through many red herrings, hopeful avenues of inquiry, and suspects you never thought of including in the list.

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Did the pretty girl who said she never gave a handjob to the main witness in the graffiti hearing lie? Is Maxwell’s girlfriend hiding something sinister that might help her boyfriend in the case?

I also learned about the mating habits of today’s teens where “Hey” is just a garden-variety greeting, but a “Heyy” with two Ys is a booty call signal for millennials. HawBowDah?

There is some drag in the middle episodes (though I suspect it’s part of the narrative schema) where the filmmakers hit a wall and a fallow season sets in. But most of the eight episodes are very well-crafted and the arc lets character development breathe.

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You will care for the crusading filmmakers Peter and Sam, and care for the put upon jock rascal with (perhaps?) a decent, yet misunderstood, heart. Comedian Tatro’s Maxwell continually throws up hidden dimensions of himself as part-clueless jester and part-martyr for love. But is his stupid jock image a put-on?

Like many high schools with a black or white view of authority figures, it’s also easy to hate the Hanover High teachers. They’re the immediate villains of the show who look like they may have profiled Maxwell and have now seized on the chance to move him out of the school post-haste and permanently.

Pretty soon, the relevant teachers are also involved in the investigation! Add secret screenshots, rumors of hookups, and the inevitable virality with barrage of public opinion and you have yourself more than an inquiry into who really did draw the dicks? What a circus!

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These young misfit actors of American Vandal, plus some pretty confident comedic writing and directorial pacing, make this series a compelling and often hilarious take on a high school drama that spins out of control.

Fun part is, it’s been renewed for a second season.

American Vandal is now streaming on Netflix.


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