This article originally appeared on Crossfader.
For those of you lucky enough to be living under a rock, true crime is officially The Thing. Network execs across the board continue to capitalize on modern audiences’ obsession with murder, from instant classics like THE JINX to the incoming LAW & ORDER TRUE CRIME: THE MENENDEZ BROTHERS. As Wayans’ Law dictates, any pop culture fad this enduring will inevitably garner a parody. So arrives AMERICAN VANDAL: a “true crime” mockumentary about an expelled high school student accused of spray painting 27 dicks on faculty cars. VANDAL takes enough cues from MAKING A MURDERER and SERIAL to keep any true crime fan worth their salt entertained for its eight-hour runtime, but rises above the level of an elongated dick joke (dick joke intended) through its masterful storytelling and powerful message.
High School Juniors/aspiring documentarians Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund tackle the dick-painting caper with the severity of a murder investigation. Dylan Maxwell is convicted by the school board and expelled for the vandalism; however, he maintains his innocence in conflict with reputation as a douchebag, prankster, and “known dick drawer.” Peter and Sam’s pet project reaches a viral fever pitch around their school and beyond, shedding new light on the case and ultimately asking its viewers to challenge their perceptions of others.
But also, like, a ton of dicks
Like any good high school students, Peter and Sam (and the actual creators of the series) did their fair share of homework before tackling this project. VANDAL’s true crime influences extend from instantly recognizable nods and tropes to larger thematic elements present in the true crime canon. Most will recognize the playful homages to MAKING A MURDERER’s iconic opening sequence and Sarah Koenig’s recreation of Adnan Syed’s supposed path to and from the murder site. An in-depth discussion of “splatter” in regards to the spray paint—which they openly refer to as a “murder weapon”—tickled my FORENSIC FILES funnybone. Yet any writer with a few Buzzfeed listicles and an empty Saturday could make these references. It takes someone with true understanding of the genre to touch so effectively on its core issues: namely, whether true crime investigation does more harm than good (MISSING RICHARD SIMMONS, an honorary member of the true crime family) and the fanaticism surrounding these cases in contrast with the grisly events they represent (CASTING JONBENET). VANDAL not only understands the inner workings of the genre, it understands when to use dark humor and when to expose the darkness.
AMERICAN VANDAL truly excels in its ability to incorporate so many existing tropes while still feeling like an authentic, new piece of material. Unlike some of Netflix’s other popular properties (for the sake of example, let’s just make up a show and call it Schmanger Schmings), VANDAL never feels like a mere patchwork of better material. Translating the severity of a falsely accused murder suspect to a high school student expelled for phallic vandalism lends itself to originality as well as it does to comedy. Viewers will recognize the characters as their former high school classmates; personally, I have to stop myself from calling Dylan “Cody,” the resident meathead prankster douchebag of my high school. While the detective work involved in exonerating Dylan is definitely advanced, none of it feels outside the scope of what a particularly enterprising high school student could accomplish. Peter and Sam get caught up in pettiness over the course of the investigation, at one point going off on a barely-related sidebar to assess whether one of their classmates lied about getting a handjob at summer camp. They strive to take the investigation seriously, but meander in ways that feel authentic to 16-year-old AV club kids.
To clarify, this is the part where they don’t get caught up in pettiness
Even the most genius of premises will fall apart without the support of excellent writing. Luckily, AMERICAN VANDAL brings both to the table. The solid suspense writing kept me locked in for the entire season in one sitting, and I found myself experiencing the same exciting jolts of realization I had during MAKING A MURDERER. It has all the narrative twists and turns that true crime addicts crave, and I won’t dare give any of them away. I always appreciate a show that feels like it knows what it’s doing, and I never had a moment of doubt about AMERICAN VANDAL.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a true Crossfader review of a buzzy Netflix release without one nitpicky complaint. Despite its attempts to appear like a bona fide true crime documentary, AMERICAN VANDAL is still a work of fiction. In a nonfiction work I wouldn’t expect the documentarians to explain their personal motives for capturing the material, but in something like this I would have liked a deeper understanding of why Peter and Sam set out to make the documentary in the first place. Their voices are so present throughout and they are so close to their subjects that it feels odd to have no stated purpose other than “to know the truth.” It would have been easy to out Peter as only creating the project for his college portfolio and explore the implication that he’s using everyone for his personal gain. There is no clear personal motive for Peter and Sam to care so deeply about this case, and if there is one, it’s extremely subtle. This is the only area where VANDAL shows its seams as an extended dick joke, and I hope it’s touched upon more in season two.
Pictured: AMERICAN VANDAL not showing its seams as an extended dick joke
AMERICAN VANDAL is one of those special shows that almost anyone can enjoy. It isn’t too inside baseball to only appeal to die-hard true crime fanatics, and it isn’t so vulgar as to alienate the people who would never be interested in the true crime genre anyway. It presents a timely message about prejudice and truth, plus a few dick jokes to help it go down. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) For tons of laughs and a sobering dose of truth, look no further than this deceptively packaged dick flick.