Below, please find a review of American Vandal. The first eight points are relatively spoiler-free. The last two are probably better if you’ve seen the show. Which you should. You should see it. It is extremely good. Allow me to explain.
1. American Vandal is a mockumentary and true crime parody from Netflix. It was created by Funny or Die veterans Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda. The first season contains eight 30-40 minute episodes and is available now.
2. The plot, in general terms, goes something like this: Someone at Hanover High School has drawn penises on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot. Senior class clown and doofus Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) is the prime suspect. The school board expels him based on one unreliable eyewitness account and a pile of circumstantial evidence including, but not limited to, a long history of drawing penises on things. But sophomore Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) sees holes in the case and launches an investigation/documentary to get to the bottom of it all. It is essentially like Serial crossed with Making a Murderer but about drawings of dicks.
3. If you read that paragraph and thought to yourself, “Hmm, sounds funny but I don’t think they can keep that idea fresh for over four hours of programming,” I am pleased to report that you are stupid and wrong. So very wrong. It is good and it remains good the whole way through. It pulls this off in two ways:
- American Vandal knows exactly what it is doing. It’s such a good true crime parody that it might even ruin the genre for you, but like, in a good way. What starts as a straightforward(-ish) investigation zooms off down path after path on the hunt for new theories. New suspects are looked at, inconsistencies are examined in painstaking detail, a huge conspiracy wall is constructed with pictures of people and strings of yarn connecting them to index cards with questions marks. A big break in the case stems from the way the penises are drawn. The show spends a lot of time on it. It’s really just delightful.
- There is a surprising amount of emotional heft to it all. As the investigations twist and twirl, the show takes some time to show the effect all of it has on the subjects. There are tears, and there is yelling, and parts of it will make you feel real feelings about some of the characters, which is not something I expected from a mockumentary about graffiti dicks. But it is all in there. I swear to God. In addition to being a great true crime parody, American Vandal is also one of the best teen dramas on television.
I am sorry for calling you stupid earlier. I just get a little excited.
4. There is so much talk about dicks. And so many drawings of dicks. You almost become immune to it after a while. Like, a character will say “We still don’t know who drew the dicks” and you will find yourself so fascinated by the mystery that you’ll have to remind yourself how hilarious the whole thing is. Here, let me show you what I mean.
The last image is one of the official promotional pictures Netflix provided to critics. It’s my favorite promotional picture since Sad Pablo Escobar on a Bench Swing from Narcos. To be clear, this is the highest praise I have to offer.
5. It is very hard to discuss this show without spoiling it, because so many of the things that make it so much fun are little moments and specific references that you really should get to enjoy with fresh eyes. Especially the references to the first season of Serial, which range from the small (“The Kiefer Sutherland Call”) to the broad (the effects of an episodic documentary going viral before it reaches its conclusion). A big part of me hopes this catches fire like Stranger Things did and “Who drew the dicks?” becomes an inescapable pop culture phenomenon that everyone eventually gets sick of.
6. Are the episode titles childish puns? Oh heck yes, the episode titles are childish puns.
- “Hard Facts: Vandalism and Vulgarity”
- “A Limp Alibi”
- “Growing Suspicion”
- “Premature Theories”
- “Gag Order”
- “Clean Up”
Hello, I am 11 years old and I love this.
7. One of the best parts of the show is its ever-shifting relationship with realism. So like, on one hand, there’s a teacher who says some inappropriate things in an interview when he thinks it’s just a little documentary and then has consequences to face when it all blows up. Which is good and played for laughs, of course, but also reminds you that there are still stakes at play for the people involved. And on the other hand, this two-person investigation using high school equipment will periodically feature startlingly advanced CGI to reenact events that were not caught on camera. Here’s an example I can show you that is safe for work, but please know there is one that takes place at a lake and features a borderline graphic sexual encounter between two silhouettes.
8. I think this is the best way I can describe it all: One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Bojack Horseman is its dual commitment to being extremely silly and extremely heartfelt. There’s very little middle ground in there. You’re either laughing at a woodchuck mayor who has lobster claws for hands or you’re getting your heart ripped out. American Vandal is a little like that. It’s not nearly as devastating as Bojack can be, but a lot of the tension in the show comes from investigations revealing strained family dynamics or that feeling teenagers have when they start to realize that maybe the real world isn’t going to be as great as they hoped. But also, the dicks. There are just so many dicks. You won’t even believe it. This is what many experts refer to as having it all.
At this point, I’m going to transition to a few spoiler-y thoughts for people who have seen the show. If you haven’t seen it yet and think you might want to, please enjoy this picture of the conspiracy wall (“Ball Hairs?”) and come on back after you get caught up.
9. The ending is somehow satisfying in its unsatisfyingness. We know Dylan didn’t draw the dicks because he has an alibi that involves Twitch and dog food and nudity and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Mackenzie. But we never get a definitive answer as to who did it. It certainly looks like Christa and her boyfriend drew the dicks (I knew it!), but it’s almost not even the point. The biggest takeaway from the ending, for me, was how bad I felt for poor dumb Dylan as he was watching the documentary for the first time and saw all the classmates now celebrating him calling him an idiot and assuming he did it. I truly did not expect to feel emotional about this and yet, there I was, a little heartbroken for the simple goon. Same for Sara Pearson when she chewed out Peter at the party for including the hookup list in the documentary. Again, the show is just a blast from beginning to end, but it also nails that fragility teens have under their cool, dick drawing masks. Some kinda show this is.
10. Pat Micklewaite!