Honestly, I had no idea what I was in for with American Vandal, the new fictional, satirical true crime series that dropped onto Netflix this past Friday. I assumed I would enjoy portions of it and probably would have to deal with the rest of it. Granted, that’s a vague manner in which to enter a new show, but it’s all I had. Whether this project was any good seemed wholly dependent upon the writing and direction.
I knew via the descriptions I read that the “crime” was certainly more of a joke than anything else. Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a burnout senior with a penchant for juvenile pranks, had been expelled from a California high school after being accused of spray painting penises on 27 faculty automobiles in the parking lot. The question you hear repeatedly through the eight episodes is similarly light.
“Who drew the dicks?”
It sounds and in many ways IS ridiculous, but relatively quickly, it becomes anything but. While the crime might not rise to the level of Adnan Syed or Steven Avery, the expert manner in which the various scenarios are laid out comes across less as a parody than a faithful imitation. This isn’t a mockery as much as it is a pastiche, and it’s incredibly well done. Plus, this crime results in over 100,000 dollars in damages, and Dylan Maxwell is on the hook for the money. He wanted to go to college in Boulder, but his entire future is on the line.
Incidentally, Tatro is exceptional as the embattled goofball, playing Dylan on an imaginary fence between a dolt and an antihero with underlying heart and understanding. You think you know the guy you’re dealing with, but with each episode, Maxwell’s character evolves into one you in which you find yourself rooting. You’re hoping he’s innocent, and you’re hoping the documentary can get him out of trouble.
Credit to co-creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, along with showrunner Dan Lagan. Using the true crime documentary format as the foundation, and casting relative unknowns with improvisation ability, American Vandal gets to the heart of what people find entertaining today. Unsolved crimes or miscarriages of justice entice every one of us, because in some respects, we can place ourselves into the position of the victim as well as the accused. Dylan Maxwell is a clown, but from the beginning, we’re relatively sure he didn’t actually take the red spray paint and vandalize all these cars.
As the evidence begins to unfold, Dylan’s case gets stronger. Regardless of which true crime series is your favorite, you’ll be able to follow American Vandal easily. Early, one of Dylan’s classmates, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and his best friend, Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) decide to make a documentary to follow the case. Maxwell has already been suspended before the opener begins, and we hear from him in his own kitchen off the top. Immediately, we can tell he isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Once Peter tells the backstory, he provides alternative suspects and delves into their backgrounds. That’s where the idea of a Serial or an Up and Vanished really take center stage, as those shows were reliant upon who ELSE could have done the deed. In the case of the latter, no arrests had been made, so it was a pure unsolved mystery. In general though, most documentaries of the genre focus on trying to prove the innocence of the main subject.
Maldonado and Ecklund reveal they aren’t necessarily trying to “get Dylan off,” and that their only goal is the truth. In that search, they discover inconsistencies in the primary witness’ story, as well as the trusted teacher that appears to have a vendetta against Maxwell, dating back to his older brother’s time at the school. In revealing interviews, we get to know the student body president, Dylan’s questionable girlfriend, and other teachers with skeletons in their closets.
But, “who drew the dicks” is still the backdrop, which you might think would limit things. It does the opposite. The crime permits slapstick humor at times, as Maxwell is more Johnny Knoxville or Steve O from Jackass than he is Adnan Syed or Robert Durst. He’s a bit of a dumb ass, but there’s likability within him. The most stunning achievement of American Vandal isn’t in its dick jokes (which are often very good), flatulence, and drug references, but in the balance it strikes between its most absurd moments and its most dramatic.
By the third episode, I wasn’t just hooked on the show, I was hooked on Dylan’s case. Yes, the creators actually made me care who vandalized the cars. I was working theories in my head, attempting to figure out the end game before we arrived there, and I had the exact same feeling I have in my travails through the first season of Serial or HBO’s The Jinx. I cared. That’s amazing considering this was pure fiction, and certainly had its share of spoof-styled satirical humor.
The young cast is impressive, as are the adults. A particular standout is Calum Worthy, who plays the school’s prime witness, Alex Trimboli. Alex isn’t all that popular, has the acne and shaky hygiene of a boy becoming a man, and his credibility is challenged in the wake of a claim that he received a handjob from the most attractive blonde in the senior class, Sara Pearson (Saxon Sharbino). When she’s asked if she did the deed, she responds with “Ewwww.” But she says it seriously, which makes it even funnier.
American Vandal does satire beautifully, because everything is done with a tinge of real. Deadpan is employed to maximum effect, and the impact of that tactic never dies. It works from beginning to end, and it helps to raise the level of the smaller jokes as well as the major plot points. Dylan is a well-known penis drawer, but the vandalized cars had shaved testicles on the penises, and Maxwell’s history shows he always includes hair in his art. This is presented as a major flaw in the school’s case, and somehow it actually makes sense, and that’s just one example of the dual planes on which the series plants its flag.
Later in the show, not only do we feel for Dylan Maxwell, we’re also given reason to doubt the motives of Maldonado and Ecklund, because in their zest to get answers, they expose secrets in the school that personally and professionally harm their classmates and teachers. We’ve seen in the past that true crime documentaries posit their theories on partial truths and end up sweeping innocent people up in an investigation, only to find out they were indeed innocent. That happens multiple times within American Vandal.
Ryan O’Flanagan provides the show’s best humor as Mr. Kraz, a history teacher that wants to be cool with the classmates, so he posts on Facebook walls and even makes a statement that Sara Pearson is hot, after saying he wouldn’t go so far as to call one of the seniors attractive. He’s creepy and cringe worthy, but he’s also hilarious. Every interview with Kraz had me rolling, as he’s the guy that thinks he’s in, but is in actuality very much out. His role shifts midway through the series, but his portions of American Vandal gave me some of the best laughs I’ve experienced all year.
As with everything involving this show, the Kraz balance comes from Ms. Shapiro (Karly Rothenberg), an entirely serious, “Dylan Maxwell targeted me” instructor that seems intent on destroying the lives of anyone she doesn’t like. She has a case, but Peter and Sam, along with another assistant, Gabi Granger (Camille Hyde) poke many, many holes not just in her version of events, but also in her reputation.
Very few of the performers in American Vandal are recognizable, with Tyler Alvarez being perhaps the most well-known of the students for his recurring role as Benny Mendoza in Orange is the New Black. He’s very good, and one thing that becomes apparent about the series as a whole is the attention paid to the details of the satire and impersonation. The reactions of Peter and Sam to everything are pitch perfect, from proving something could have happened with a subtle nod to the larger discoveries that leave them both reaching for final conclusions too early.
Through the course of the eight episodes, Peter and Sam’s friendship is tested, as are most of the relationships within the show. Along with the fun and the not-so-fun portions of the series, American Vandal also does an uncanny job at portraying the realities of high school in this society. Even at age 38, I can relate this reality to the jerks, jocks, and preps from my own school back in 1997.
The season does basically answer the big question before it ends, but not before casting a light on the often unfair stereotyping and emotional difficulty of teenagers attempting to grow up. Dylan Maxwell realizes how people see him, and in the season’s most dramatic moment, he views the documentary and hears what his classmates and peers think of him. It’s a sobering reminder of how little we sometimes know about the people around us, and how cruel and blunt adolescents can be to one another.
When the finale came to a close, I was incredibly satisfied with the entertainment value of American Vandal. I began to wonder if there could be a second season and how it might look. Reportedly, Perrault and Yacenda are considering a new case and how they could keep the show going. Once you watch the series, which I HIGHLY recommend, whether for a laugh or a stunningly compelling story, you’ll be clamoring for a second installment. Folks, this one is really good.
One other instance of the flawless balance of humor and drama comes as Dylan’s parents take him to buy a suit for court. He sees a tiny suit, made for a toddler, and can’t stop pointing and laughing at it. Moments later, he’s dressed in his own suit and remarks that he thought the first time he wore something like that would be at his graduation, not for a trial. You laugh and then you stop laughing, and then you laugh again, just before you cease the guffaw to pause and think.
The series also shows how these documentaries have turned people like Sarah Koenig into stars. Peter and Sam aren’t at the cool table, but they end up celebrities, as does Dylan Maxwell. The fictional series within the show becomes a monster and an obsession. Payne Lindsay has taken his Up and Vanished podcast on tour this fall, doing live events surrounding the disappearance of Georgia beauty queen, Tara Grinstead. I’ve sometimes found myself asking questions as to whether it’s about solving a crime or becoming a public figure. The answer is probably “yes.”
Mr. Kraz, who says some sketchy things, ends up saying he had no idea how big it would get and that he probably shouldn’t have said some of that stuff. He’s right, but thank goodness he did, because I needed those laughs.
I went in with almost no expectations and even less of a sense if this show could work, and I walked out of it impressed and ready to spread American Vandal‘s good news with the world. It’s the surprise of the year, marrying almost comical levels of humor with palpable, sometimes painful drama, and I found myself more invested in the plight of Dylan Maxwell and those in his world than in the vast majority of television characters I met in 2017. I was looking for clues along with Peter and Sam, and felt a sense of accomplishment when I realized the shaved balls before the documentary mentioned it.
That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write, but it’s fitting for a series I never thought I’d watch, and a concept I didn’t expect to see.
American Vandal is terrific, it’s funny, it’s saddening, and it is an absolute, unquestioned must-see. At times absurd and at times devastating, I loved it. I now look highly forward to seeing what’s next from these guys. Do yourself a favor this weekend and carve out a little over four hours to binge this beast. You’ll be glad you did.
I’m @JMartOutkick and this is Baby Farts. I drew the dicks.