overnights

American Vandal Recap: Every Handshake a McNugget

American Vandal

Leaving a Mark
Season 2 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****

American Vandal

Leaving a Mark
Season 2 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

I figured out something that I’ve been missing from season one beyond mere nostalgia when my friend Jaya mentioned feeling like something’s been lost having the student filmmakers being a part of the action: “It felt like they were missing some of that investment in teen minutiae that made the first season so amazing, like the obsession over who gave a hand job to whom, or just exactly who got invited to Nana’s party — maybe because it’s no longer set at Peter and Sam’s school, it just feels a bit more removed from the drama.” I love Peter and Sam, and so far we haven’t had quite as many scenes with them, and there’s less for them to do here in general, which is a shame. But when American Vandal turns its eye to the peculiar combination of relentless Hustle Discourse and self-promotional bravado of the star student athlete (anyone else remember the student athlete jokes popular on Twitter last year?), things really start to open up.

The student in question, DeMarcus Tillman, is the school’s star basketball player and the first possible suspect after Kevin. “What are my strengths?” he asks the camera. “It’d be easier to ask what my weaknesses are, which, I really don’t think I have any.” He plays an invisible violin after every point (“for the haters”) and claims to look down on people “with love,” insisting that his best friend and teammate, Squeaky, is just as important as he is, “even though he’s not very good.”

Melvin Gregg is note-perfect as a hyper-focused overachiever who’s constantly aware of everyone else’s status, and how to maintain his. Chloe Lyman, one of Kevin’s only supporters, claims to have seen the Turd Burglar calling card in his wallet when they were both standing in line at the vending machine, and it’s telling that she doesn’t seem to mean anything by it one way or another when she offhandedly refers to it as a “shitty old wallet” — DeMarcus is from Rainier Beach and, as Peter puts it, “you drive, what, 40 minutes, to a town that is … very different from your own.” Rainier Beach is one of only two neighborhoods in Seattle with a majority black population; St. Bernadine students are predominantly white. But DeMarcus is quick to shoot down any suggestion that he feels like an outsider (“If anything, I’m in a higher class”) and defends St. Bernadine from its “bougie” rep.

Some of the episode’s best moments come from the facial expressions DeMarcus’s teammates come up with as they nod affirmatively during his talking-head moments — Squeaky chewing his own lip when DeMarcus says, “You know, sometimes I wonder why he even plays basketball,” Lou’s abashed half-smile and Justin-Bieber-style prayer hands when DeMarcus says “He inbounds it to me and I score, but for some reason they count it as an assist.” One gets a sense that this is going to be one of the more prominent themes throughout the season, given that one of DeMarcus’s teachers, Ms. Montgomery (of the Kurt Vonnegut piñata infamy), compares herself to Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side before forgetting the name of her black co-star, Quinton Aaron. DeMarcus’s nickname is Mr. Untouchable, and in plenty of ways that’s true — his GPA mysteriously shot up a full point when he joined the basketball team, he answers his phone and has long, unhurried conversations in class — but he’s also conscious of his own vulnerability. He develops unique, over-the-top nicknames and greetings for a number of professors and students “to make them more comfortable,” never coming out and saying why they might feel uncomfortable with him otherwise.

Peter and Sam try to figure out, if DeMarcus seems to generally get along with everyone on campus, why he might do something like the Brownout. “What if it’s as simple as a prank?” Peter asks. “What if this is just DeMarcus thinking poop is funny?” Almost involuntarily, Sam says, “Poop is funny,” and while I don’t think we’ll ever be on the same side of the issue, I love the way he seemed helpless to say anything else in the moment. There are a few lovely moments of old-school-Batman–style deductive reasoning (“If she saw it in the wallet, then DeMarcus is the Turd Burglar”), but for the most part it’s a pretty joke-free stretch as the two continue to investigate the history of pranks on campus over the last few years. Two years earlier, the school mascot’s costume went missing before showing up on a themed Instagram account — Sir.Fux.a.Lot — dedicated to sexually harassing student Paige Burton. “Everybody knew” it was Perry Coleman, another star athlete, but nothing ever came of it. It seems like the show is setting things up for a potentially bigger/more ambitious payoff at least partly at the expense of joke density, which I can respect, if not love.

Back to Kevin, whose repeated costume changes continue to give me life (this episode’s standout involves a tan flat cap, over-the-ear headphones, a bright blue T-shirt, and an unbuttoned formal vest.) He claims he doesn’t have access to the locker rooms before pep rallies but that DeMarcus does, and that he goes, not to a school with a basketball program, but a basketball company with an academic facade. (He also pronounces the word “facade,” “fa-saww.”) A few years back, student Grayson Wentz took advantage of a bunch of still-logged-in Twitter accounts in the school computer lab to post messages like, “My dick’s gonna fall off @jessrodriguez99 infected me with crotch goblins” from other students’ accounts, and was expelled. “It’s like when you fall asleep with your shoes still on,” as another student puts it, referring to the inevitability of posting something stupid when someone else is still logged into their account on a shared computer. “Someone’s gonna draw a dick on your face.” Grayson, now working at a cell-phone kiosk at the mall and obviously embittered, seems a likely candidate as the next-most-obvious suspect. I’m just glad we got a solid joke in before the episode’s close.

American Vandal Recap: Every Handshake a McNugget