If Beavis and Butthead decided to make a show like Making a Murderer, it would probably look a lot like Netflix’s American Vandal. Actually, if Beavis and Butthead were involved, it might have fewer dick jokes.
American Vandal, streaming as of today on Netflix, is a parody of true-crime series like the aforementioned Netflix docudrama, and therefore focuses on a “crime” of a less serious nature: an act of vandalism in which a student named Dylan Maxwell stands accused of spray-painting penises on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot of his high school. Dylan (Jimmy Tatro) is the kind of kid who could easily be voted Most Likely to Continue Being a Jackass by his fellow peers. Everyone thinks he “did the dicks” — it doesn’t help that one of his signature acts of disruption is drawing male genitalia on the whiteboard in his Spanish class — and the evidence against him is pretty damning. But Dylan swears he is innocent.
That’s why two students who work with Dylan on Hanover High School’s morning news show — reporter Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and camera man Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) — decide to start investigating. The entire series, while actually created by Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault in real life, is presented as the work of these two students. That conceit is even conveyed in the opening titles, which mimic, note for note, the titles typical of this genre. They’re all dramatic black-and-white imagery of people and things relevant to the case — Dylan blowing a puff of cigarette smoke, a can of spray paint, a toilet (don’t ask) — presented along with credits that state that this series comes from Netflix “in Association with the Hanover High School TV Department” and was executive produced by “Mr. Baxter.” Everyone involved with this show really commits to the format. That’s what makes American Vandal more compelling than I would have suspected, even though it does have some significant flaws.
Midway through the first episode, for example, I was already getting a little tired of the dick jokes. (“I’ll never understand what’s so amusing about penises,” says Ms. Shapiro, one of Dylan’s victims and the teacher who testifies most persuasively against him in front of the school board. I feel you, Ms. Shapiro!) The show makes fun of boneheads like Dylan and his friends, as well as their more grown-up counterparts like Mr. “Kraz” Krazanski, a teacher determined to prove he’s as young and hip as the teens he teaches. (“I’m not going to say that one of my students is unbelievably hot,” he says in an on-camera interview. “But oh my god, dude.”) The show often revels in humor that’s just as bro-heavy and juvenile as what it’s mocking, which can be a little confusing and, at worst, just plain irritating.
But at the same time, American Vandal understands the pseudo-journalistic twists and self-seriousness of its genre so well that you can’t help but admire it on some level. The show is constantly debunking the Dylan narrative by introducing additional information and new evidence — the one eyewitness to the crime might not be so credible because sources (read: gossipy teenagers) say he probably lied about getting a hand job! — and does so while adhering to and spoofing an aesthetic that marries artistically photographed shots of kitchen chandeliers with on-the-fly, gotcha-style interviews. It’s funny because it’s so spot-on, and also speaks to how easy it is to get sucked into this genre no matter what the subject matter is. After the first two or three episodes, I wouldn’t say I cared about the characters in this pretend documentary. But so help me, I actually felt invested in knowing, beyond a reasonable doubt, who did the dicks.
American Vandal also picks up on something about the high-school experience that other TV shows and movies — Election immediately comes to mind — have highlighted before, and that’s the way that even the stupidest little things can be inflated into the stuff of high drama, or, in this case, mocku-crime drama. As ridiculous it is to make eight 30-minute-plus episodes based on a dick joke, there’s also something about keeping the joke going for so long that makes it … almost brilliant? Please note that I said almost.
“It’s a little childish and stupid. But then, so is high school.” Ferris Bueller used these words to describe how silly it is to fake illness by licking one’s palms. But that also happens to be a 100 percent perfect way to describe American Vandal.