For anyone hoping (e.g. me) that the second episode of the season might bring with it a slight reduction in the number of Snapchat videos featuring fairly explicit poop imagery: I’m really sorry. You have likely had a difficult week, and were hoping for a break, and I really wish you could have one. But episode two not only shows old footage from the Brownout, it also gives us an exquisitely tense scene where a Kurt Vonnegut piñata explodes into a fine mist, as well as a follow-up involving T-shirt cannons at a pep rally. They are, as that sort of joke goes, fairly sophisticated, layered, and specific, and for that I do them honor, but I just can’t find a place for them in my heart. It puts me in mind of how much I wish I could appreciate the Naked Gun movies, having a very large place in my heart for Airplane! and a lot of Mel Brooks’s work, and yet something stops me every time. Be it ever so creative, I’ll never love a joke about poop.
What I do love, and what American Vandal renders very, very well, is a carefully rendered portrait of a Weird Kid™, which Kevin McClain undoubtedly is. The series has switched from the least self-examining dude in the world as the focus of season one (a real ham sandwich of a guy) to a highly mannered cross between Niles Crane and the cape-wearing kid in Wet Hot American Summer. Where Dylan Maxwell would never have considered asking for a second chance to say something — whatever he says is whatever he says — Kevin asks for retakes during his talking head segments. (At one point, I just started writing down his outfits in my notes and realized he dresses like a cross between Kelsi and Ryan from High School Musical.)
I haven’t seen many shows spend so much time with characters who are not exactly unpopular but also not obvious outcasts — Kevin claims the “fruit ninja” videos were his idea to begin with and that he mostly enjoys doing them, and in that moment it felt genuinely difficult to parse whether he’s simply trying to make the best of a bad situation, or has a number of complicated relationships with his peers that fall at different points along the spectrum of “laughing with him/laughing at him.” During his cross-examination, the administration obviously wants Kevin’s confession to rest on his resentment for being an outcast, but it’s not clear that that’s how everyone sees him.
“Aside from Throwback Thursday, I haven’t heard ‘Shit Stain McClain’ in years.” And Alex Wright dressed as him for Halloween because Kevin gave him his hat! He’s the kind of dude who over-enunciates “horchata” and says things like “Our school splurges on Sri Lankan cinnamon. It’s astonishingly smooth.” When you consider that his grandmother pronounces mozzarella sticks “moe-zarrela sticks,” you get a sense of how much time he’s probably spent cultivating his own version of a mid-Atlantic accent in order to distinguish himself from his family. Kevin is the only person who refers to the teacher’s lounge as “private faculty quarters” — he’s more private school than private school. He cares a lot about everything, which is often deeply uncool, but you can also see how (some of) his classmates have an odd sort of respect for his commitment to the persona.
“Bullying requires an unwilling participant,” he says. “Do I seem unwilling? … In general, I love being the fruit ninja. I’m friends with the people I make them with.” It doesn’t seem like an either/or situation, exactly, where Kevin is either trying to justify his treatment after the fact in order not to feel hopeless about himself, or if the administration has gotten him completely wrong — it may be a bit of both.
The next segment of the episode was titled “The Shit Launcher,” and I don’t want to talk about it. One of the students describes the scene thusly: “It wasn’t clear that it was poop, and then someone shouted that it was poop, and then we knew.” Let that be enough.
The main focus of the episode is on Kevin’s (former) friendship with Tanner Bassett, until recently the only other member of the Horsehead Collective. Kevin believes Tanner has blamed him for the Brownout out of a mistaken sense of betrayal: “He thinks I ruined Skip Day.” A number of students offer an exhaustive recounting of the crucial elements of Skip Day, where two groups compete to see who can finish the following the fastest: “a pizza — the pizza has to be jalapeño and sausage, a case of beer, a full juul cartridge, and a handle of vodka,” all before completing a 100-piece puzzle of Andrew Lundgarden’s mom.
I rewound the descriptions of Skip Day at least three times, partly because I wanted to get the order right but partly also because it’s such a pitch-perfect example of how important details are when bored 16-year-olds want to get trashed. Tanner, who seems slightly freer to participate in a more traditional social life than Kevin were he to choose to do so, texts him after deciding to unexpectedly participate at the last minute. “Don’t come crying to me when you get an underage,” Kevin responds, and since the cops do end up busting Skip Day, Tanner accuses him of narcing. Kevin, never one for a proportionate response, immediately replaces Tanner with a new band member from the local junior high. (“So now it’s not weird if we play bar mitzvahs.”)
Tanner’s motivations are now at least somewhat in doubt, and Sam and Peter can’t agree if Kevin was actually affected like the rest of the students or if he forced himself to, you know, join in in order to look innocent (there’s a three-minute segment where Sam argues the difference in facial expressions while clenching versus straining is impossible to mimic and totally apparent in the Brownout footage, which is gross as hell but I begrudgingly respected), and Chloe claims she saw a Turd Burglar calling card in DeMarcus Tillman’s wallet. I have such hope — such hope — that the next episode will focus less on footage of the attacks, and I will be able to resume watching without constantly throwing my hands in front of my eyes.