[The following contains some light plot spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s American Vandal, with more specific spoilers in the observations at the end.]
Nothing about the premise of American Vandal prepares you for American Vandal. It is easy, even once you flip to Netflix and start watching the show, to imagine it to be the ultimate fool’s errand: yes, true crime documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer are inviting subjects for parody, but an eight-episode series about an investigation into spray-painted dicks?
There are elements of American Vandal—including most of the clips featured in the show’s trailer—that are what you would expect from a short sketch on this topic: aesthetic tropes of shows like Making a Murderer or The Keepers carefully recreated, but this time about lewd vandalism and lakeside handjobs. And for the most part these jokes are pretty funny, and helped by the fact that everyone involved is taking this so seriously. The show commits to the thoroughness of those investigations despite the inherently shallow nature of the crime in question, and that commitment never wavers, which is the central joke of the piece. At one point, Peter—the documentarian—explains what he’s doing to someone consulting on the legal elements of the case, and an outside observer remarks on the stupidity of the project, and it’s funny because it’s true.
But where American Vandal succeeds is in the fact it isn’t actually about #WhoDrewTheDicks, conceptually speaking. Yes, the fact that its characters are earnestly investigating graffiti genitalia is a joke, but the characters themselves are not turned into a joke in the process. The majority of the show finds its storytelling outside of the inciting incident, cobbling together glimpses of high school life grounded in realism despite being predicated on penises. And for a show with such an absurd premise, American Vandal shows a deft hand at capturing the nuances of teenage life, providing a strikingly authentic portrait of the mediated world of its subjects that builds to a closing sentiment that both pokes fun at the likes of S-Town while also tapping into their emotional power.
While the trailer above focuses primarily on the way Tony Yecuda’s direction adopts the visual language of recent documentary series—the drone shots, the voiceover—it also shows glimpses of its commitment to what I refer to as “video verisimilitude.” Rather than relying on The Jinx-style reenactments to tell its farcical story, American Vandal filters its narrative through the cell phones of Hanover High’s students, as Instagram posts and Snapchats piece together the life happening around the story. It’s not uncommon to see movies or TV series use social media to tell their stories, using montages of images and videos from these platforms to establish a series of events or a particular setting. But what’s uncommon is the level of investment American Vandal shows in making sure these images look like they are actually products of real, human engagement with these applications.
When the show needs to establish the aftermath of the dicks, it does so through a series of posts on social media, but with careful attention to recreating the amateur aesthetics that come with such posts. It’s clear that Yecuda and his production team shot using real cell phones, and used filters and descriptions that feel in line with how such an event would play out on a platform like Snapchat. This is consistent throughout the series, but comes to a head in the fifth episode, “Premature Theories,” when Peter begins to piece together the importance of “Nana’s Party” to each of the narrative threads introduced to that point. The problem? Not only did this party at Rachel Balducci’s grandmother’s house take place in the past, before Peter started filming, but neither Peter nor his co-producer Sam were actually in attendance, meaning they have to piece together what happened exclusively through the social media posts of those who were in attendance on that fateful evening.
The result is, on the surface, an extension of the joke about Peter’s obsession with this case, a sequel to the earlier scene where they use elaborate 3D models to determine the viewing angles on a potential handjob. We watch as Peter uses those models to indicate various angles from which footage was captured of the plans being made by the WayBackBoys, and then to chart the journey of the can of spray paint as it made its way through the party. It’s funny in and of itself, but what makes it so effective is that the footage from Nana’s Party is—at its core—entirely mundane. It is a meticulously created teenage rager, which resists trying to layer on more jokes in favor of “plot” details in the background of the characters on the periphery of the story getting drunk, trying on Nan’s clothes, and eventually making a run from the cops.
This footage is inherently imperfect. The camera work is shaky, and the “shots” never feel perfectly composed to highlight what Peter and Sam find in them. When watching them, they feel like artifacts of a real party, even though they’re part of a show that because of its premise has no chance of ever feeling “realistic” in a traditional sense. But because the production focused so much on making sure that these videos looked like they were actually captured by teenagers at a party, it becomes far easier to see the footage through the same lens as the show’s investigators. I started to forget that every inch of these series has been constructed to tell this story, and instead began to feel—on some level—that there is a distinction between the primary evidence being presented and the document of the investigation that Peter is producing based on it.
In the process, the show avoids all of the telltale signs of “production” creating this kind of material that pop up on lesser shows: there’s no pristine footage that places 4K cameras in cell phones, there’s no lazy post-production filters, there’s little-to-no bad PhotoShop in photos featuring two characters, and the production draws careful aesthetic distinctions between different types of footage (like the GoPro used to record parts of YouTube videos central to the story) that ground this in the real, mediated lives of its subjects. It may seem absurd to make sure that a show about spray-painted dicks would be among the most realistic depictions of high school life, but the aesthetics are a huge part of anchoring this narrative in reality, and keeping the farce from overwhelming the underlying story.
That underlying story is anchored by this footage, in its own way, as it explores the consequences of this documentary on its subjects. The only reason Peter and Sam knew to look at the party footage was that the first four episodes of American Vandal had been made available—on Vimeo, which is such a perfect detail—and had “gone viral.” Lots of television shows or movies use virality in their storytelling: Orange is the New Black just did a story about a YouTube account that “went viral,” for example. But American Vandal digs deeper than just claiming that clips are being watched widely: it uses montages to depict the different messages being received, and recreates the forensic responses to other true crime series in ways that have direct ramifications on the story. The choice to have the show’s narrative overtaken by the reception of the first half of the series itself means that the show has to reckon with the consequences of telling its story, but those consequences are not broadly drawn, nor are they overstated. They are spoken of not as less as numbers of comments or views, and more as tangible responses, shown as individual posts and anchored in the realism of listener forensics much the same as the video footage and images seen throughout the series.
And these details are crucial when American Vandal makes clear it wants to be something more than dick jokes. While a few characters like history teacher Mr. Kraz live on the edge of outright parody, most remain grounded by this realism, which helps when the show starts to sketch out the consequences of the project. Dylan’s girlfriend Mackenzie is a Twitch streamer, which eventually plays a role in the story, but the show isn’t making any kind of joke about Twitch streaming, or about girl gamers, or about MacKenzie’s character in general, which keeps her arc from playing without significant melodrama. When Sara Pearson confronts Peter about the way she was depicted in the documentary, she expresses real anger, and because all of the artifacts we’ve seen of her have been realistic the show is able to take her anger seriously. And when Sam talks to Gabi toward the end of the series, the show uses the audio from the production’s microphone but finds video through someone else’s social media, enabling a level of intimacy that sells the real friendship between the two characters.
It is through these types of stories that American Vandal is able to mount a critique of the essentialism at the heart of these projects. By so carefully recreating artifacts of real life and filtering them through the lens of a glossy documentary, it makes clearer the distinctions between these people and the narratives being constructed than if all of the footage looked like it was part of the production of the Netflix television series itself. The final episode is largely a denouement, about what happens when the subjects of the documentary start to gain perspective on how their lives intersected with the story being told. And there’s a sobering lesson there for many characters, one that has nothing to do with dicks and everything to do with the pressures of high school and the warped power of public perception over that four year period.
When the culprit is eventually revealed, the show doesn’t go for a tidy villain edit: it uses its archive of footage to construct real motive, and taps into the realism to anchor the character’s actions. American Vandal ends on Peter essentially undercutting the whole purpose of the project: it began as an attempt to figure out if Dylan looked like the kind of person who would draw 27 dicks on teachers’ cars, but it concludes with the argument that this was a stupid question. This is how you’d imagine the sketch version of American Vandal to end: some sort of final joke about how the entire concept of these documentaries is flawed, as demonstrated by a parting dick joke.
But what struck me about this ending is that it doesn’t really use the dicks to make this point. Instead, it uses the truths that American Vandal uncovered about these people—not caricatures—over the course of the investigation, which wouldn’t have been possible if the show hadn’t embraced the realism of its absurd story to keep it from becoming defined by the phallic images that define its initial approach. It may be going too far to say that American Vandal is a serious show, but it takes its characters seriously—none of them are turned into a joke about a particular topic, and at no point does it feel the show is indulging in a particular storyline solely because there’s a gag it wants to make. And as a result, the audience can become invested without the baggage of the joke, immersed in this absurd situation because the details surrounding it never “double” the absurdity to a level that pushes the viewer away. Its parting message that it is absurd to allow the four years of high school to define yourself is not profound, perhaps, but it’s a far more nuanced conclusion than this premise required, and executed with a level of realism unprecedented in creating this type of mockumentary.
[Spoiler Alert: I’m going to cover a few spoiler-y details in the bullet points.]
- One of my biggest complaints about social media in television is when accounts are featured but the show in question doesn’t recreate the accounts in reality. And I was annoyed by this with the WayBackBoys account here, but I realized that the show couldn’t create diegetic transmedia without having to acknowledge the timeline issues. This is very clearly set in the “past” as of when it is releasing, and so they get a pass on this one.
- One piece of verisimilitude the show gets wrong: Twitch doesn’t have private streams, and also wouldn’t allow nudity (there’s software to identify it and block those users). I’ll allow that particular choice to bend the truth given that it’s not for the sake of a joke, and more to help create a plot turn at a crucial moment.
- There’s also a significant continuity error with Christa’s cast, which some saw as some type of clue but is more likely a case where their commitment to realistic photos just saw a mistake slip through (or that image was mirrored, possibly).
- Some great casting (whoops, didn’t even mean to do that) work—they couldn’t really go with established stars, because it would sort of break the illusion, but Tyler Alvarez and Jimmy Tatro, in particular, walk such a great fine line in their performances. It’s unfortunate that Netflix auto-plays to the next episode after five seconds, which means because of the (fun) fake opening title sequence the actors are never credited in a binge-watch.
- The moment I felt best captured the absurdity of the show was when there was an extended conversation about where you would start spray-painting a dick—there’s a very scientific answer provided, and I was sitting on my couch like “that’s right,” which is insane. I mean, they’re 100% correct that you would never start drawing a dick with the mushroom head, but that isn’t something I should be treating as rational thought, yet there I was.
- My favorite detail of the “virality” is that the WayBackBoys are thrilled to go from 300 subscribers to 700. The show avoids overstating the impact of the documentary: lots of people might have watched it, especially locally, but the “impact” doesn’t feel blown out of proportion.