Some light spoilers to American Vandal
The story: A student has spray painted 27 dicks on 27 faculty cars in the school’s parking lot. Senior Dylan Maxwell, known troublemaker, stands accused by the school board and faces both expulsion and a fine of $100,000 for the damages. Sophomore Peter Maldonado is the filmmaker, and we know at least one of his influences is Serial, as he references the podcast to explain his work. Peter takes the case into his own amateur hands and with his crew, Sam and Gabi, starts probing any and every lead, exposing the personal lives of both students and faculty as he goes after the “truth” harder and harder.
By taking the genre of true crime into the vapid and ridiculous playground of the high school comedy-drama, American Vandal eases us into its point by padding it with a special brand of stupid humor. Such self-aware gems include: an analysis of the typical process of drawing a penis, a serious field trip to figure out if a questionable hand job really happened at camp, and an exhaustive conversation about a Heyy text, and if the extra “y” symbolizes someone who is looking to hook up. Riding on the tale end of the millennial generation, this comedy showcases the same reckless sexuality, drug use, and easy cruelty that teen comedies have since the 70s, though now with the drama of social media and the layers of anxiety it adds.
Even the introduction to the show is in-universe, using the characters’ names in the opening credits that roll over dramatic footage of Dylan smoking, images of evidence, and the blood-like splatter of red spray paint. The music low and mysterious.
This show is stupid. It’s a teenaged stoner comedy that takes us through the typical high school tropes and clichés. But its self-awareness and careful parody of popular true crime documentaries wraps this goofy narrative into something that feels complete, which is rare. It's one of those shows that you have to admit has, despite any offense, something subtle and core-shaking to say about true crime and those who consume and comment on it (me, you).
American Vandal had me laughing from my gut while it punched me there simultaneously. I think that anyone who has devoured true crime documentaries while also feeling a sense of guilt will be affected by this series. We have all found ourselves caught in the frenzy of a case, feeling emboldened, feeling that we know, that we have figured out something big: we have solved something that previously seemed beyond explanation. But all we have really done is witness someone else’s thinking while sitting on a couch. We have been manipulated, and gratefully so. But all the while real people with real lives are experiencing the impacts of that which entertains us.
In episode five, the documentary goes viral, with hashtags like #FreeDylan, #whodrewthedicks, and #SaraPearsondidit. This is where the documentary shines the light back onto us, the way that fans and amateur sleuths insert themselves into cases, sometimes going as far as harassing those they believe to be guilty or those they believe to be concealing evidence. Of course, none of us know the truth, but certain true crime documentaries convince us that we do. The question then becomes, are artists responsible for the reaction to their work or not? I tend to think it’s both. We as viewers also need to remind ourselves that we are not detectives, and we are most likely not being told the entire story, but rather a narrative that provides entertainment. And artists must work to tell the truth but only the truth that needs telling.
American Vandal feels like a direct challenge to those documentarians who claim it suspicious when people don’t want to talk to them. Why doesn’t he want to come on and clear his name? Because that isn’t always, or usually, what happens. People who allow themselves to become subjects sign an invisible agreement that makes them vulnerable to any probing that the documentarian finds interesting, even if it has little or nothing at all to do with the case. At one point, Peter states his fear of accusing people, “Because I’ve seen the way an accusation can ruin someone’s life.” He says this while leaving a wake of pointless revelations behind him, ones that have consequences for his friends, classmates, and teachers.
It has all the clichés we have grown so accustomed to as to no longer notice their triteness. Peter is the serious, sophomoric (no pun intended) filmmaker and narrator who often waxes philosophical about high school life and the human psyche. He has moments of self-questioning, the typical back-and-forth in which he questions his own perception, his own biases, at one point asking of Dylan, “Am I the ultimate prank?”
Peter and Sam follow leads into places that feel illogical and unnecessary, only to then circle back and say things like, “but they had a confirmed alibi, so I guess it couldn’t have been them.”
I wonder if the choice to use penises as the image spray painted had a double purpose (other than being obviously hilarious, as Dylan points out to the school board in his hearing). It feels like Peter is stripping each subject naked, like probing the sex life of “hot girl” Sara Pearson to prove a point only loosely related to Dylan’s case, if at all.
Mimicking the raw eyes often seen from subjects perpetually crying as they describe the pain of their experiences to the documentarian, Dylan’s eyes are always glassy and red. He is permanently stoned and often passing blunts or bongs around with his friends who call themselves the Waybackboys and film obscene pranks for their YouTube channel. The Waybackboys provide Dylan with the shaky alibi that the school board dismisses easily because of their status in the school, focusing instead on a witness account from nerd Alex Trimboli. Trimboli has a much better reputation than aggressive class clown Dylan, whose brother before him also terrorized the school and left a mark in the minds of teachers who seem determined to “convict” Dylan. One of the biggest questions of the documentary is, Could Dylan be being targeted based on assumptions about him?
Just like in Making A Murderer, Dylan is embraced by the public once the documentary goes viral, though he wasn’t really a sympathetic character to begin with, but rather a frat-boy type who spends his days pranking his mentally ill neighbor. And, without giving the ending away, the question remains, was it worth it? Why do we so easily and willingly connect with certain subjects in true crime? Do we all feel persecuted in one way or another? Is this feeling of being wrongfully accused simply a deep feeling of being misunderstood by others? Is that why we identify with characters like Dylan who are not particularly good, but certainly not the picture of evil, who stand accused of something, anything? Maybe we want to see a grand conspiracy at work; we want to feel like we have been wronged by being misunderstood. Because it feels that way.
I don’t think American Vandal’s point was completely critical of true crime, however. Revelations of inappropriate behavior from a teacher that holds power at the school also points to the capability of the documentary to empower those who are in the line of abuse. In Netflix’s true crime series, The Keepers, we see this laid bare as women come forward to speak the truth of the abuses they suffered at the hands of religious and school authorities. The difference? American Vandal, and much of true crime media, examines and exposes innocent lives without consent, while The Keepers sticks to revealing truths through testimonies that are offered freely, not digging up irrelevant drama simply to construct a more sensational story.
American Vandal does not condemn true crime, but it does ask us to consider the impacts of what we consume, which is a noble, sober, and intensely relevant mission. Plus, the dick jokes are hilarious. As the poet Heather McHugh stated in her irreverent poem I knew I’d Sing:
I swore/ that nothing—but nothing—would be beneath me.
And the stoner humor of American Vandal is certainly not beneath me, especially when it serves to help deliver complex moral questions with a flourish of weed smoke and cheap beer.