I resisted the first season of Netflix’s American Vandal for a few weeks because I refused to believe that a mockumentary about a teenager spray-painting dicks on teachers’ cars could actually be good, but once I felt sufficiently beaten down by the positive reviews, I acquiesced. The reviews were right. The first season works not just as a brilliant, hilarious and spot-on parody of the true-crime genre, but it actually contained some surprisingly smart social commentary about the struggles of the high-school clique system.
I didn’t need anyone to push me into watching season 2 of American Vandal, though in the end, I was just as surprised that the series was able to sustain the conceit and push it even further, and though it lacks the some of the humor of the opening season, the social commentary is even richer and more thoughtful.
Season two also seems to largely eschew the mockumenting; instead of subverting or parodying true-crime documentary tropes, American Vandal straight-up adopts them and applies them to a case with lower stakes than serial murder. Here, after Netflix “threw a bunch of money” at Sam and Peter — the teenage fictional investigators of the show — to help them increase the production values (it’s all very meta), they take on the case of the Turd Burglar at the exclusive St. Bernadine High School.
The Turd Burglar is responsible for three crimes at St. Bernadine, most notably “The Brownout,” where our mystery prankster slips laxatives into the cafeteria’s lemonade, leading to a schoolwide shitstorm. All the students get diarrhea at the same time, and because the school bathrooms cannot accommodate that many people at once, the students resort to shitting on floors, in lockers, and on themselves. It’s riotously funny, disgusting, and a little painful to watch. The other two incidents involve a pinata shaped like Kurt Vonnegut’s face filled with shit; and T-shirt cannons that shoot cat shit into a pep rally.
A suspect by the name of Kevin is immediately identified as the Turd Burglar, and during an interrogation, he confesses; he is expelled; and he awaits criminal charges in the matter. But alas, everything is not exactly what it seems, and several of Kevin’s classmates sew doubt into that confession. It turns out, there’s a lot more a play here; it’s a bigger conspiracy that involves teacher cover-ups, as well as and an effort to protect the school’s star basketball player.
In adopting the true-crime documentary tropes in a more straightforward manner, American Vandal season two also manages to create a more compelling mystery. It’s easy to fall into the Turd Burglar rabbit hole, and were this a show released in weekly installments, I could easily see myself creating a murder board not unlike the one used in the series, though American Vandal has one major advantage over real-life true-crime documentaries in that it does not turn a woman’s murder into a game for conspiracy theorists at home.
But the true underappreciated value of the second season of American Vandal is how it explores the role of social media in the lives of high schoolers, the first generation who have been forced to live two separate lives for their entire existences: One in reality, and one online, and how the latter can affect the former. An eighth grader who shits his pants during a birthday party, for instance, may never be able to escape the documented evidence of it online, while resentful classmates can drag a popular classmate over a misunderstood joke, and each of those instances can constantly be resurfaced through Instagram or Facebook. Social media can alienate kids in their real lives, driving them deeper into their unhealthy social media lives, and ultimately, everyone pays when the Lemonade gets spiked with X-Lax. The greatest feat of the second season, in fact, is that when Vandal ultimately fingers the Turd Burglar, instead of feeling vengeful, we find ourselves feeling empathetic.
Header Image Source: Netflix