Every successful Netflix show doesn’t a merit a follow-up. Take the second season of American Vandal, which attempts to replicate the mix of true-crime satire, low-brow humor, and insight into contemporary teendom that made season one such a critically acclaimed winner. Unfortunately, it can’t quite manage it.
Season two follows pretty much the same template as the first: The series, co-created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, follows teen documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) as they attempt to figure out who committed several pranks/crimes at a high school where everyone’s a potential suspect. But while last season’s investigation unfolded at the public Hanover High, the same Southern California school Peter and Sam attend, this season they pursue a special project that takes them to St. Bernardine, a private Catholic school in Bellevue, Washington, where an incident referred to as the “Brown Out” has recently occurred.
The Brown Out highlights one of my issues with the second season of American Vandal: the fact that it’s full of shit. I mean, actual, literal shit. The Brown Out is the first in a series of heinous acts committed by an anonymous figure dubbed the Turd Burglar, who pours a heavy-duty laxative into the school cafeteria’s lemonade dispenser and causes a large percentage of the student population to come down with a ferocious and instantaneous case of diarrhea. There aren’t enough toilets in the school to accommodate all those disturbed bowels, so kids are forced to drop their pants and unload into trash cans, lockers, even the middle of the hall. It is a gross scene and, as the catalyst for everything that happens next in the series, one that American Vandal returns to repeatedly. Everything the Turd Burglar does — creating poop-filled piñatas, filling pep rally T-shirt cannons with dry cat turds — involves feces. Those who have an affinity for explicit scatological humor may find all this hilarious. Personally, it made me miss the refined sophistication of season one’s dick jokes.
As was the case in the first American Vandal, one student is quickly accused of being the culprit, and Peter and Sam just as quickly begin to poke holes in that theory while considering who else might be responsible. This time, Vandal’s wrongly accused man takes the form of Kevin McClain, the know-it-all twist on season one’s unfairly accused no-nothing lunkhead Dylan Maxwell. Kevin is a very specific type of oddball, the kind who’s obsessed with various types of tea, including the proper way to slurp them, and proud to be called the Fruit Ninja because of his willingness to karate-chop at produce that his classmates lob in his face. In short, this kid could have sauntered straight out of a Wes Anderson film and into this show. He’s played by Travis Tope (formerly Joe Harper on Boardwalk Empire) with such a commitment to Kevin’s idiosyncratic obnoxiousness that he emerges as the most interesting character in the season.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much competition in that regard. In terms of personalities and situations, you can sense the writers stretching to repeat what came so naturally to them in season one. That doesn’t mean they never manage to excel at being utterly absurd. Example: the aforementioned poop piñata, which is actually a piñata of Kurt Vonnegut, created annually by English teacher Mrs. Montgomery (Sarah Burns) as part of a day-long celebration of the author’s birthday. The accusation that Kevin is responsible for that, too, sparks this zinger of a line from Kevin’s grandmother: “He didn’t know how the poop got into the Vonnegut piñata! But they still made him write a confession about how he put the poop in Vonnegut’s shoulder.”
Later, when Mrs. Montgomery discusses her admiration for the school’s star basketball player and biggest man on campus, DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), she cluelessly goes into full white savior mode. “I think of myself as being Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,” she says proudly. “I feel so connected to my students, the same way she was connected to … the black kid in that movie.”
Tillman gets an increasing amount of attention as the suspicion begins to shift toward him, implying that season two of American Vandal might surprise us with some insight into the coddling of school athletes in the same way season one indicted public school systems for pigeonholing students. For a few minutes, you might even say the series turns into Hoop Dreams — or is it Poop Dreams? It doesn’t quite go that way, though, pivoting again and again as Peter and Sam follow new leads and clues that feel increasingly contrived.
When the eight episodes finally reach their conclusion, they do so on an almost cheery, didactic note that feels totally out of sync with the show’s sensibility. What made American Vandal so remarkable the first time around was that it took one kid’s immature obsession with dick jokes, treated his punishment as though it were a national tragedy, then made us care so much about the mystery behind his treatment that, by the end, what happened to Dylan Maxwell actually did feel kind of tragic. The second American Vandal, while amusing here and there, isn’t able to do all that. It recycles the same template, but can’t quite convince viewers to invest in everything that transpires at St. Bernardine. To put it another way: American Vandal season two tried its best, but ultimately, I found it hard to give a shit about it.