Netflix’s ‘American Vandal’ Is More Than a One-Note Dick Joke

American Vandal promises satire that will puncture the self-importance of Netflix’s own entries in the true crime genre, like Making a Murderer and The Keepers. By moving the setting to a high school in California and making the central crime 27 spray-painted dicks, American Vandal seemed poised to be a great one-note joke, a self-serious investigation into a mundane crime. Instead, the end result is a nuanced and human story of two high school filmmakers whose aesthetics are as different as their social circles.

The titular American vandal is Dylan Maxwell, played with extraordinary depth by Jimmy Tatro. Dylan is widely understood to be a prankster burnout, uploading videos of his pranks with his friends, The Wayback Boys. When 27 cars in the high school faculty parking lot are defaced with spray-painted dicks, it’s not hard to draw a straight line to a teenager who seems to deface school property with dicks constantly. As he notes in a Snapchat video, “Another day another dick.”

Dylan is expelled and faces criminal charges, at which point his case is picked up by sophomore Peter Maldonado, played by Tyler Alvarez. Using the school’s AV equipment, Peter sets out to get to the truth of the case. His strongest evidence that Dylan may not have drawn the dicks: Dylan’s illustrated dicks have hairy balls, while the 27 dicks in the parking lot are all hairless and have more detailed heads than Dylan typically draws. This evidence is compelling to Peter and his friend and collaborator Sam (Griffin Gluck), who begin to pull apart the threads of the school board’s case against Dylan.

As Peter and Sam uncover, the case against Dylan is largely circumstantial and doesn’t hold together under strict scrutiny. The bigger surprise to them – and Dylan – is how unresponsive the school is to their attempts to get at the truth. For Peter and Sam, the school system has been largely just and responsive, and discovering that beloved teachers can harbor prejudices is a tough pill to swallow.

Peter and Sam must break more rules to get the footage their story needs, and here’s where Peter’s fascination with Dylan bleeds over into the “documentary.” Within the world of American Vandal, the documentary is being uploaded to Vimeo, not Netflix. Peter has made several short films for Vimeo that, in Sam’s words, are, “not very good… shitty, really really bad.” Peter sees himself as a serious filmmaker, making a serious documentary about an injustice. Dylan’s work, on the other hand, crosses platforms – the Wayback Boys have produced pranks for Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and elsewhere. Much of their work is on-the-fly, but recently they’ve been focusing on more long-term pranks that require planning. Dylan might not describe his work as filmmaking, but of course it is, and the culture clash between Peter and Dylan is evident in their work as well as their lifestyles.

In both cases, Peter and Dylan’s work goes largely unnoticed until American Vandal starts blowing up. Once American Vandal episodes are posted on Vimeo, the world takes notice, and Peter and Dylan become minor local celebrities. Dylan is asked to draw dicks on strangers’ yearbooks, and Peter is bombarded with fan theories about who drew the dicks. In this way, American Vandal again succeeds in grounding its action; few TV documentaries really acknowledge the impact the audience has on a subject’s reality.

This attention to realism also permeates Peter and Dylan’s relationship. Their connection is tenuous to begin with – they both work for the school’s TV station, which means they both had access (along with seven other students) to the mysteriously deleted security footage of the parking lot. Beyond that, though, they have little in common. Peter is a mild-mannered 10th grade film geek; Dylan is a senior who gets high and is no stranger to the school’s disciplinary measures. Peter’s interest in Dylan goes deeper than his suspicion that Dylan didn’t draw the dicks – he also admires him. Dylan is everything Peter hates about high school and simultaneously an appealing vision of unselfconscious masculinity. The delicacy of this teenaged dynamic is well-observed and, like many of the details on the show, feels real and honest.

There are ways that American Vandal is put together that frustratingly blur the line between its realism and the fantasy that a high schooler could make this documentary. It repeatedly uses footage from multiple social media sources to piece together events, which leaves the viewer wishing that any modern documentary actually had that level of access to footage – it would be stunning if more real documentaries were as thorough as American Vandal. We’ve come a long way since The New Yorker’s excellent “The Story of a Suicide,” but we still have a long way to go.

One joke in particular highlights the strength and weakness of this mockumentary. To check one witness’s reliability, Peter and Sam must establish whether or not this witness got a handjob at summer camp. As they review the details surrounding the alleged handjob, the documentary cuts to a CGI reenactment of one nondescript figure giving another a handjob, including a nondescript cylinder standing in for the teenager’s penis. The visual gag is very funny each time they return to it, but it also is considerably advanced work for a documentary allegedly produced by teenagers. It hearkens back a bit to The Office’s ninth-season presentation of Threat Level Midnight. While funny and satisfying, it was hard to shake the question: When did Michael Scott get so good at cinematography?

The handjob CGI does demonstrate the alternatingly funny and annoying realistically rendered high school sexism that permeates the project. Peter and Sam are obsessed with the sex lives of the girls at their school and are willing to detail the tawdrier elements of their peers’ lives, even and including topless footage that they believe can help their case. The documentary is at its strongest where, like the later editions of the Up series, those portrayed confront the documentarians, asking how much of their exposure was in service to the documentary and whether it was worth creating that much pain. Mockumentaries that ignore this dynamic, like NBC’s Trial & Error, elide the impact the panopticon has on people’s lives, particularly on those of young women with any kind of perceived sex life.

Ultimately, American Vandal is one of the better mockumentaries in recent memory. The notion of treating its subjects seriously may have started out as part of what made it funny, but it ends up allowing the series to feel truthful and piercing. Like Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, the producers’ affection for the subject matter bleeds through and allows viewers to connect with the characters even when they aren’t laughing. Like the work it parodies, resolving the central mystery is secondary to understanding the circumstances surrounding the events in question.

Photo by Tyler Golden/Netflix.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

Netflix’s ‘American Vandal’ Is More Than a One-Note […]