Dylan Maxwell is in trouble. After a meticulously-planned attack on the faculty parking lot, resulting in an anonymous mass vandalism of twenty-seven spray-painted penises on twenty-seven cars, all fingers are pointed at the class clown… but Dylan (Jimmy Tatro) isn’t going down without a fight.
From the studios of Netflix, which has introduced the world to hard-hitting dramatic series such as The Crown and Orange Is The New Black, comes a delightfully raunchy mockumentary series, American Vandal, reminiscent of the streaming service’s own Making a Murderer or the New York Times smash hit podcast, Serial. Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, two emerging comedic media producers, were given a chance by Netflix’s notoriously experimental content creation department to flesh out two seasons of smutty humor.
It was perhaps the show’s bawdy manner that caused Netflix to deny its renewal after the release of the second season in 2018. Even though the series happens to center itself around phallic imagery, the debut season of American Vandal proved itself to be a wonderfully unique example of satirical television, performing exceptionally well both as a mockumentary and as a genuine manifestation of the true crime genre. Despite its unfortunate abandonment, I uphold that the first season of American Vandal is one of the greatest works of television of the twenty-first century.
So, yes: American Vandal’s first season is, fundamentally, about the parking lot penises. When Dylan is expelled from Oceanside, CA’s Hanover High and criminally charged for the unseemly vandalism, student documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) vow to investigate the truth of the incident. Through a series of inquisitive interviews of their peers, the intense dissection of high school-hallway gossip, and even the use of explicit CGI recreations, Peter and Sam publish a thorough series to discover the truth about Dylan and possibly exonerate his name.
At some point during the series’ eight episode arc, viewers become engrossed in the fictional iteration of Oceanside illustrated by Perrault, Yacenda, and the phenomenal ensemble of actors. The line between the true crime genre itself and the show’s biting parody is blurred, and we are meant to understand what’s truly lying below a silly story about dick drawings. American Vandal is an exploration of subjectivity and truth, and of what it means to be a social outcast during the years of development.
In a sea of unfortunately convoluted representations of high school life on our screens, the fictional Hanover High community is a breath of fresh air. We’re used to seeing a two-dimensional representation of the teenage experience through shows like Riverdale, Glee, Gossip Girl, and more of its kind. However, American Vandal takes care to craft life into each of its characters. Even the imaginary text messages, social media pages, and party videos are strikingly accurate representations of what an actual teenager would share with their friends. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that some of these weren’t put together by a teenaged comedy writing prodigy.
In combination with these complex characters, the carefully crafted plot of the series keeps viewers tied in. It seems as if the writing team has achieved the impossible: each episode boasts its own fresh trajectory and twist, but the content is still easily digestible, keeping the audience invested the entire way through. I’ve heard some say that they finished the entire season in one sitting; it was too interesting to stop.
The exceptional elements of the show’s production are only augmented by the performances of the cast. There is a sense of hometown comfort that comes from the show’s watching experience, due in large part to the familiar nature of the characters, who are universally reminiscent of people from your high school. Alvarez and Gluck embrace the boyish and goofy sides of their characters while Tatro masters the presence of the pitiable teenage douchebag. One of the standout performances comes from Camille Ramsey, who portrays Dylan’s burnout girlfriend, Mackenzie Wagner. In the season’s penultimate episode, Ramsey’s once-subdued character comes to life in a passionate monologue, which is one of the most powerful moments of the season.
Although American Vandal was a short-lived masterpiece, the show has amassed a cult following and earned a Peabody Award for entertainment in 2018. However, the mockumentary series will live on in the comedy community forever and serve as an example of masterful parody for decades to come.
By Mathilda Hallstrom