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Quick TV Rec: American Vandal

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There’s a problem I occasionally encounter as a reviewer that I call the “it’s really good” problem. It’s when you want to recommend something that doesn’t have an obvious hook (or worse, has a hook that is offputting) and whose appeal boils down the fact that it’s simply impeccably executed. You end up being reduced to “you should watch/read/play this; it’s really good”, which as we all know is not an immediately persuasive argument. I’ve had this problem with such brilliant works as the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (it’s so good, you guys), the YA novels of Frances Hardinge (why aren’t you reading her right now), and the Netflix romantic comedy series Lovesick (an especially vexing case since the show’s original name was, I kid you not, Scrotal Recall; it’s really the most charming, sweet show imaginable, but yeah).

Now I suspect I’m going to have it with Netflix’s high school comedy American Vandal, whose second season dropped this past weekend. If you’ve already watched American Vandal, you’re probably nodding furiously along, thinking to yourself “she’s right!  It’s so good!” If you haven’t watched it, or haven’t heard about it, you’re waiting for me to make my pitch. Before I do that, though, I want to reiterate: this show is really good. It also has the sort of premise that sends people away in droves. With the possible exception of The Good Place, I don’t think there’s a TV show currently running that has as high a differential between the dubiousness of its concept and the excellence of its execution.

Basically, American Vandal is a true crime mockumentary about a pair of AV club nerds who try to figure out who spray-painted 27 dicks on the cars in the faculty parking lot in their high school.

No, wait, come back.

A lot of the (gushing, ebullient) reviews you’ll see of American Vandal will talk about the fact that the show—and its heroes, self-serious crusader Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and his best friend, the immature but often much more on the ball Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck)—never blink. It’s not just that American Vandal perfectly replicates the by-now cliché tropes and plot beats of real true crime shows and podcasts like Serial or Making a Murderer, but that at no point are we allowed to even consider the possibility that expending this kind of effort, this detail-obsessed level of investigation, on a petty and rude act of vandalism is in any way pointless or ridiculous. This is definitely impressive, especially when the investigation veers in even more absurd directions, such as comparing different vandals’ styles in drawing penises, or an episode dedicated to evaluating whether a not-very-striking boy at the school could really have received a sexual favor from one of its most popular girls (which sounds not great, I realize, but really, this is one of the least slut-shame-y shows I’ve ever seen). But the gag and the show’s commitment to it are not what make American Vandal great. Or rather, it’s the fact that that commitment extends to every aspect of the show. Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda weren’t content to parody true crime stories. They created a genuinely excellent, twisty, even moving mystery, and peopled it with characters whose humanity is revealed, rather than flattened, by their juvenile obsessions and compulsive online presence.

One of the best things about American Vandal is its recognition that people who are shallow are not necessarily less human, or less interesting, than people who are deep. The student who is accused of drawing the dicks in season one, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), is a meatheaded buffoon with breathtakingly immature habits and no real plans for his future. But not only is Dylan innocent, over the course of the season his travails and interviews reveal that he is capable of his own forms of empathy, reflection, and hurt—without ever once suggesting that he might become a deeper, less destructive person as a result of his ordeal.

The same sympathy is extended to the entire student body at Hanover High. It’s easy to write a high school comedy that mocks the shallowness and internet-obsession of teens—and especially in a show like American Vandal, where online presence is a major component of the investigation, from parsing the meaning of a suggestive “heyyy” to debating whether putting a period after an emoji is an indication of mental instability. But American Vandal never allows its characters to descend into stock types. It recognizes that the key to good, memorable writing is specificity, and it gives every one of its teenage characters enough distinctive character traits to remind us that these are people in the process of becoming themselves. So yeah, they’re all going to laugh at the kid who posted pictures of himself in a diaper, but they’re also going to agree that it’s kind of sad and wonder if he’s OK.

Another effect of this specificity, especially in season one, is that Hanover High itself becomes a wonderfully lived-in environment, with touchstones of the school year around which everyone’s lives are ordered, and specific incidents that everyone remembers. A major aspect of the first season investigation involves painstaking recreation through cell-phone video of an epically destructive party that everyone seems to have attended (Peter vainly tries to conceal his annoyance that he wasn’t invited), and the second season features students debating whether they think the chicken fingers at the cafeteria are “restaurant quality”, or gushing over the school’s unusually attractive custodian (known exclusively as Hot Janitor). It’s also fascinating to watch how the students and teachers at Hanover High have such conflicting—and equally valid—takes on the same time and place. For the kids, high school is one of the most intense periods in their lives, but one that passes in a flash, after which they leave forever. The adults take the longer view, but are also incapable of grasping how important their students’ seemingly trivial obsessions can be. This can lead to unbridgeable miscommunications, as well as scenes in which you, as an adult viewer, can plainly see how the kids are being manipulated by people who have seen it all before, and know that none of it really matters.

Most of all, though, American Vandal is just a genuinely great mystery, despite, or perhaps because, of the fact that both the stakes, and the clues, of its story are so ridiculous. You’ll never believe how earth-shattering it can feel to watch the characters follow a particular can of spray-paint as it’s passed from one person to another, or eliminate suspects because they don’t have the late 2017 Apple “A[?]” glitch. It’s not just that American Vandal knows how to incorporate online communication and social media into its mystery storytelling so much better than more prestigious mysteries, but that it constructs the revelation of clues, the dismissal of red herrings, and the emergence of new suspects with such tremendous elegance and verve that you just want to stand up and applaud. If, by the time you’ve watched three or four episodes of the show, you’re not desperate to know who drew the dicks, then you might actually be dead.

Season two, in which Peter and Sam, now internet-famous due to Netflix picking up the first season of their documentary, travel to a Catholic school in the Pacific Northwest to investigate a series of cruel pranks (as Peter rather ominously puts it: “a serial vandal”), isn’t as rich and engrossing as season one. This is a fairly common flaw of mystery sequels, and somewhat inevitable given the premise. Peter and Sam are strangers to St. Bernadine’s High School and its student body, and the season therefore can’t deliver the depth and complexity of the insular world depicted in the first season. What it offers instead is a much darker, more convoluted crime—albeit one that is still rude, stupid, and blown completely out of proportion by the show’s format—in which a mysterious figure known as The Turd Burglar terrorizes the school and exposes the student body’s secrets and foibles. (One caveat that I will offer to people interested in the show is that you probably shouldn’t watch season two if you’re sensitive to depictions of the scatological, of which there are a hell of a lot.) The season’s two suspects are a typical combination of annoying and lovable—accused prankster Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) is an outcast who has embraced being a weirdo as a defense mechanism, and now finds himself trapped by his persona, while Peter and Sam’s alternate suspect, basketball star DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg) initially seems like a well-meaning braggart but reveals layers of insecurity and thoughtfulness as the season progresses. As in season one, there’s a heart of pure empathy and compassion beating beneath American Vandal‘s immature exterior. Not only will you be desperate to find out who the Turd Burglar is, you’ll find yourself moved to unexpected pity for them and their victims.

Anyway: American Vandal. You should watch it; it’s really good.

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