American Vandal Season 2 is Anything But Sh*tty

This review contains spoilers for Season 2 of American Vandal, as well as strong language and discussion of fecal matter.

The Netflix mockumentary American Vandal returned this past week on September 14 with a new season that is a shitshow, in the best sense of the word. Though its subject matter, laxative-drugged lemonade and a number of feces-related crimes, seems somewhat obscene, this new season is a meditation on social media, and how we, as young people, survive in a world where we have the ability to curate a picture of our best selves, and draws attention to a fact we might not be aware of--that others have the ability to demolish that curated picture in a nanosecond.

Season 2 takes place at St. Bernardine High School in Bellevue, Washington, an idyllic campus for a Catholic school, terrorized by a social media presence called “The Turd Burglar.” The Turd Burglar’s most outspoken crime, referred to as the Brownout, is spiking the cafeteria lemonade with laxatives and causing most of the student body to, well…the polite term would be collectively shit themselves. The school calls on Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), because of how mainstream their documentary on “the dicks” of Hanover High School has become—side note, there is a hilarious bit that I applaud Trevor Noah for agreeing to wherein the two boys appear on The Daily Show. In any case, when the intrepid teen documentarians arrive at St. Bernardine’s, they uncover a rabbit hole that leads them to a much, much darker place than Oceanside.

Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck in American Vandal. Image courtesy of Netflix.

The crime of American Vandal’s first season was humiliating for the teachers involved, but for the most part, it was not particularly malicious. Emotional harm was not directly inflicted by whoever you believe “did the dicks,” rather the emotional center of season one was the collateral damage of the crime. Series co-creator Dan Perrault stated that a darker, more consequential crime was part of their intention in this season. “One major factor in choosing a private school, not just a Catholic school, but a richer private school is that if you’re trying to raise the stakes, picking a place that has a long history of pride and privilege was one where a prank like this would have its greatest effect,” Perrault said in an interview with IndieWire. “This isn’t a SoCal public school where a few dicks happen and it’s a small, local uproar, but nothing major. Donors are pulling their donations and parents are pulling their kids from the school. So that kind of environment is one in which you could really buy certain students being protected over others. So I think it just made for better stakes in my opinion.”

This was my first time watching American Vandal having graduated high school, and I went to a private high school that looks scarily like St. Bernie’s, beautiful sun-baked brick buildings, wide windows, and eclectic food like horchata coming up on the cafeteria menu. There is something about that environment that seems untouchable and pristine, and I remembered sometimes wishing things would just get dirty, just to make them feel real. The Turd Burglar’s crimes, revealed to be committed by a disgraced student, reflect wanting to expose that deep down, we are all “full of shit.” The Turd Burglar focuses on how social media creates a performance, but I would argue that part of Season 2’s theme is that we are all putting on a performance, all the time. The season explores this in characters like DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), the star basketball player heavily based on LeBron James, who is beloved by the whole school but “tokenized and ultimately somewhat lonely and vulnerable and isolated,” Perrault told IndieWire. A subplot of the season explores how college recruitment for high school athletes drives their friendships, family, and day-to-day life, and how drained and helpless those athletic stars can be underneath.

“I realized that life is a lot more like basketball than I thought,” DeMarcus meditates in the season’s final episode. And there is something to that meditation. “On the court, I’m in control, but in real life, I feel like I’m on the bench.” Part of growing up is navigating your inner and outer life, how much control you exert over yourself and your relationships, and knowing what plays to make at what times. And our generation's understanding of that intrinsic part of maturing evolved through social media, a digital place where control is an illusion and where relationships feel increasingly more like games. The foil to DeMarcus is Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), this season’s Dylan Maxwell, pointed to by the administration as the culprit. Kevin is an eccentric loner who wears a “Newsies” style hat nearly all the time and is in a bizarrely believable electronica band called “The Horsehead Collective.” Though “The Horsehead Collective” is brought up as a one-time gag, the show ends on the three band members playing a bar mitzvah, horse masks over their faces as Peter monologues. The Turd Burglar refers to social media performance as a “mask.” And through ending the season showing three characters with strange, uncanny masks on, showrunners Yacenda and Perrault make us question what it means to be performing all the time, even to your friends and even to the people you care about most.

Melvin Gregg as new character DeMarcus Tillman, at new setting St. Bernardine High. Image courtesy of Netflix. 

The season does not end asking us all to sing "Kumbaya," or lament that we should all just get along and proclaim that popular kids like DeMarcus are just like loners like Kevin. “We’re not the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed. We’re living in a constant state of feedback and judgment,” Peter says at the season’s climax. Social media is a human-controlled tool. There will always be popular high school kids and there will always be horse-mask-donning eccentrics. American Vandal asks us to examine the mask we’re wearing in order to understand who we are underneath them. If you don’t see the private, personal parts of yourself as unworthy because they are not performed to the public, then if they are exposed they can’t be ugly or disgusting in the way The Turd Burglar uses feces. American Vandal defends Gen Z by offering that perhaps we are the most aware generation, one that is forced to look inside itself and change. More so than any generation before us, our most vulnerable moments are on display. Teen detectives, Peter Maldonado and Sam, Ecklund ask us to take that vulnerability, bear it with pride, and turn that shit into compost.