Season one of American Vandal so immaculately rendered a specific type of Southern Californian bro-ery that I hold it as a not-insignificant milestone in my decision to transition last year. That’s both slightly flippant and entirely true, which is to say that I have an enormous amount of goodwill for the show. So the fact that the opening episode introduces us to the Turd Burglar, a mysterious character who spikes the lemonade at a Catholic high-school lunchroom with laxatives, causing what students refer to as “the Brownout” meant that all of that capital was spent immediately. You know how sometimes browsing services will suggest Z product based on your X and Y search history, and most of the time it’s fine, or at least neutral, but every once in a while you can only draw back in horror and say, “Jesus, the Algorithm, you do not know me at all, there is 10,000 miles between X and Z”? I was able to watch eight episodes with some spray-painted dicks no problem, but having to sit through multiple Snapchat videos of (a way more explicit version) of that one scene from Bridesmaids pushed me to the absolute limit. I got about three bullet points into my notes on the premiere before everything devolved into “Oh man oh boy oh man I am having a hard time with this, oh this is VISUALLY DRAMATIC, OH MAN OH MAN I DON’T THINK I CAN WATCH THIS SHOW, BOY OH BOY THIS IS DEFINITELY ONE WAY TO ADDRESS THE SPECTER OF THE SOPHOMORE SLUMP BUT I WISH I WERE NOT WATCHING THIS.”
But life is stern and life is earnest, and we must face difficult truths, and sit through an opening credits sequence with some artful visual nods to mass food-poisoning outbreaks. Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund return as student filmmakers now on their senior project, but the rest of the students are brand-new, which provides American Vandal a chance to do what it does best, namely revel in the detailed joy of hyperspecific “high-school full name humor.” There’s something about watching high-schoolers name people they only sort-of know by their full names that is transcendentally funny. Here is a partial list of some of the best: Noah McCusker, Griffin Diaz, Justin Look, Jacob Winder, Cooper Palin, Destiny Soss, Nick Sondergoth, Monty Calamaway, Mike “Runner Boy” Bertha, Lissa Brasington, Suzanne Lewis, Lauren Watterworth, Olivia Carnegie, Suzanne Lewis, Sarah Clifton, Nathan Jenner, Shaun Sacoda, Declan Maniscalo.
So: There’s a school full of wonderfully named children, who have (sorrysorrysorry) collectively beshit themselves after the meddling of someone who calls themselves “the Turd Burglar” on Instagram. Peter and Sam are on the case to figure out whether the student the school administration talked into confessing, Kevin McClain, actually did it. (Also, do super-fancy private Catholic schools actually have “chicken finger Mondays?” That was the one note that felt off to me, despite never having attended a private school of any kind. I just always assumed that if the school was fancy enough to spring for uniforms, they also had special, private lunches, of which fingers were never a part.) Kevin’s been fingered for the job by his best friend, Tanner Bassett, a strong contender for best name in a real murderer’s row of great names.
Tanner and Kevin are in a band together called Horsehead. (“Or Horsehead Collective, I’m not sure. I used to think they were awesome in middle school, but they really suck.”) Kevin used to be cool until about the fourth grade, until an unfortunate grass stain during soccer practice earned him the nickname “Shit Stain McClain” and knocked him down from the kind of kid who had “35-person birthday parties to like, three-person birthday parties.”
The super-specific medium stakes of high-school life is where American Vandal is at its absolute best, and there’s nothing like watching someone try to describe someone’s relative popularity on the fly. This is also where Officer Crowder, the school security officer who’s deeply enthusiastic about being able to solve this mystery with his intricate knowledge of which student bands suck, really gets to shine: “It made sense that the kids bullied them about the music. It was garbage.”
After his fall from grace, Kevin turned into the kind of guy who briefly affects a British accent, starts a tea-tasting vlog, regularly gets fruit thrown at him, and scams free meatballs from a local grocery store — a guy you both want to feel sympathy for and experience total exhaustion just from sitting next to him. He’s amazing, equal parts Rex from “I Love Lisa” and Tracy Flick. During his cross-examination he says things like, “Would it surprise you if I said during lunch I said I was … at lunch?” and “Period. Sentence. Declarative. Done,” before picking up his comically tiny cup of tea and sipping loudly from it in the same fussy manner he demonstrates in an earlier tea vlog.
One of my favorite moments from season one was when Dylan’s mother almost acknowledges the degree to which her son does not respect her, then flinches at the last second: “When Dylan does, like, something stupid — and he does stupid things all the time — I mean, he usually will … He admits it to me. I mean I could … Well, okay, so he doesn’t admit it. He lies to me a lot. But I can tell when he’s lying. And he knows that I can tell when he’s lying, so he knows he can’t really lie to me, because when he looks at me and he lies, and I ask him a question, it’s like his ears get red on the top, so I know. So I don’t think that he did it.” It’s such a heartbreaking moment that put me in mind of some of my friends’ mothers who did their laundry for them well into high school, only for my friends to say things like, “God, can you come get it later, I’m busy” instead of “Thanks for doing my laundry, I’m 17.”
There’s a moment like that toward the end of episode one, when Kevin angrily mutters “Amen” after his Catholic grandmother says grace before a gorgeous-looking dinner, then starts resentfully ladling himself a bunch of mashed potatoes before anyone else can have any. (His muffled-at-home, over-the-top-at-school teenage atheism is spot-on; he’s got a “NO RELIGION ZONE” sticker on the inside of his locker in one throwaway shot.) In the next scene, his grandmother tries to describe their relationship in a way that doesn’t end in her humiliation: “Kevin’s very perceptive … if there’s something that’s not right, like the temperature of his food, or the way you fold his laundry, [she laughs softly] oh, he’ll let you know about it.”
Season two may test my physical and emotional limits if I have to watch another close-up of someone defecating into their own backpack, but I am here for Kevin’s tea vlog.