Scatology over Seriality: The missed opportunity of the still very good American Vandal season two

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When American Vandal debuted last fall, it was a surprise: the show launched with little fanfare, and read as a sketch concept more than a television series. But if there were any questions about whether a satire of true crime documentaries focused on phallic high school vandalism could sustain a season of television, American Vandal answered them with an affirmative yes. Not only did the series find plenty of humor in the spray-painted dicks and the lead suspect Dylan Maxwell, but it also wove a complex story about the students who were documenting the attempts to exonerate him, eventually landing on some really honestly quite profound observations about both the ethics of true crime investigations and the daily challenge of existing as a high school student in our contemporary moment. That it did so while committing to the verisimilitude of its diegetic social media posts may have been what burrowed it straight into my heart, but the way the series unraveled into a quite meaningful study of adolescence made it one of my favorite shows of last year, and earned it a Peabody Award this Spring.

The idea of a second season came with a new set of questions, however. Although some (wrongly) insist that the first season came to an ambiguous ending, the story of Dylan Maxwell and “Who Drew The Dicks?” ultimately did end, meaning that the show moving forward would need to approach itself as a seasonal anthology series, wherein each season focuses on a different crime. Given that the true crime documentary genre remains incredibly successful, and has various iterations and formats that can be used to fuel further satire, I can see why all parties—Netflix with a successful series with young demos, CBS looking to leverage that success to increase their license fees as the show’s production studio, the producers thinking about ideas and styles they wanted to explore—would be willing to move forward with a second season.

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Photo: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix

American Vandal season two taps into the same ideas that made the first season so surprisingly profound, telling another story about the minefield of modern high school existence told through a juvenile (in this case scatological) criminal act, this time at a Catholic high school in Washington. But in its efforts to try to replicate the success of the first season, the producers decided to retain a key piece of continuity: the men behind the camera, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, who travel to Saint Bernardine High School to produce the second season of American Vandal as their senior project. Given how critical Peter’s choices were in the consequences of the production of the documentary in season one, and how much Peter and Sam’s relationship fueled the later drama in that season, I saw the choice to retain the two filmmakers as an effort to tap into the interconnectivity that made the first season resonate the way it did.

Which is why it was so disappointing when I reached the end of the second season and realized that Peter and Sam might as well have not even been involved.

[Warning: This post will discuss this season of American Vandal in vague terms throughout, and concludes with a final spoiler section discussing the season as a whole.]

American Vandal Season 2 justifies the existence of its diegetic American Vandal Season 2 in a charming little bit of retconning: after we’re introduced to the “Brownout” that signaled the arrival of the “Turd Burglar” and his reign of terror, Peter explains that after the first season was released and eventually concluded on Vimeo, he received an offer from Netflix to distribute the documentary, along with funds to increase production values on various elements. It’s a neat way to justify some of the pricier effects work and more professional production components that seemed suspect for a student project in the first season, and there’s even a charming little reference to there being a backlash at the “improved” version that we the audience saw on Netflix compared to the original Vimeo viewers. And much as the Vimeo release created a whole culture of amateur sleuths trying to solve the mystery of who drew the dicks, the release on Netflix created a new cycle of viewers who reached out to Peter to investigate their own mysteries in a prospective season two, much as what likely happened to Sarah Keonig at the conclusion of Serial’s first season.

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A screenshot from the trailer for American Vandal Season 2, with a glimpse of Peter’s email inbox. This appears only briefly, and is never explored over the course of the season.

But once Peter and Sam travel to Washington to start their investigation, any further connections back to the first season entirely disappear. While there are moments of tension between the two friends, they never revisit the conflicts that drove them apart during the filming of the original documentary. Although Peter’s closeness to the accused hearkens back to his relationship with Dylan Maxwell, the narration only briefly touches on this concern, and Peter and Sam never discuss it. In fact, once the story starts, almost none of the people they interact with seem to talk about Peter and Sam’s first documentary. One of the suspects briefly refers to them as “the Netflix guys,” but for the most part Peter and Sam operate in isolation from their reputations and past actions. For as little as their pasts matter, the diegetic American Vandal season 2 might as well have starred two completely different documentarians, perhaps hired by Netflix to reproduce the format after Peter and Sam departed the project over creative differences.

The choice to remove an entire layer of storytelling is a strange one for me. There are still small moments where Peter and Sam’s personalities inform the investigation: one of the biggest laughs in the—decidedly less “funny,” overall—season is when Sam can’t help but settle an earlier argument in a climactic interview with one of the suspects, for example. But on the whole, their role as documentarians has no consequence on the events in the season. There’s an ongoing conversation about whether they should take any of the information they’re collecting to the police, but no conflict ever comes from it. They seem to have impressive access to Saint Bernardine—they’re listed in the opening credits as a co-producer of the film—for reenactments, but there’s never a point where that access is truly threatened, or where their investigation pushes too far in search of the truth. Peter and Sam mostly just keep moving forward, unimpeded and unbothered by the investigation around them, their involvement purely clinical—their search for truth is flattened to a documentarian’s healthy investment in their case as opposed to something personal or in some way complicated.

I need to acknowledge that there are diegetic arguments for this. The first would be that this is, on some level, the same problem that plagued season two of Serial, which American Vandal’s first season was most clearly drawing on. That second season saw Sarah Keonig take on a much less active role, and created less investment from the audience (I never finished it), and so while I’m doubtful the writers would have purposefully limited their storytelling options for that reason, I’m leaving it on the table. More likely, I think, is the argument that Peter would consciously not involve himself in the case too much after what happened in the first season, which tracks except for the fact that the season never really shows us any of this. We never see Peter getting spooked by similarities to his experiences with Dylan as he works with the accused Kevin, and whatever lessons Peter and Sam took away from their experiences documenting the dicks never manifest onscreen in any way. You could subsequently argue that Peter and Sam made an agreement not to include any personal details in this season after things got too personal last season, but it feels weird that Peter wouldn’t acknowledge that in his narration given that he has to know that many of the people watching the diegetic season two would be expecting to see a continuation of his story, and Sam’s story (“Where’s Gabi?”), and especially Dylan’s story. The show never delves into the pressure that Peter and Sam should feel in this situation, suddenly under a microscope, trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, all while investing themselves in a new crime. They’re just two filmmakers making a documentary about a series of poop-based crimes, feeling none of the pressures of Netflix’s theoretically huge audience.

If I had to guess, the producers didn’t make this choice as a clever nod to the reception to Serial Season 2 or to demonstrate that Peter has learned to remove himself from his narratives. Instead, I think Peter and Sam have almost no role to play in this story outside of an audience surrogate working through the case because the producers didn’t want to distract from the new mystery, which takes a lot of work to set up. The season is well constructed, and I would argue the resolution to the mystery is satisfying and does a lot to make the season resonate in ways that the first season also achieved, and so I’m open to the argument that this would have been much more challenging if the show was also forced to become a quasi-epilogue to the events of season one.

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Photo: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix

But I also can’t help but feel the show could have told the story of the Turd Burglar while having Peter and Sam be a more significant part of that story. Removing them from the equation reduced the difficulty of constructing a new mystery and introducing a whole new set of characters, but I honestly felt a bit cheated that we received no updates on their own narrative arcs. The producers chose to retain Peter and Sam for continuity, but then refuse to actually invest in that continuity, which led to an immense feeling of disappointment when I reached the end of the season and realized just how little agency they had in this narrative. There are moments—like when basketball star DeMarcus reacts to Peter shushing Sam, drawing parallels between the two filmmakers and his own friendship with his “butler” Lou—where it feels like the show is close to heading in that direction, but nothing ever materializes. There’s never a moment where Peter and Sam are depicted as anything other than documentarians, and the show doesn’t invest enough in the internal logics that would justify this choice by Peter in order for it to mean anything other than a missed opportunity to dig deeper into the accomplishments of the first season.

American Vandal’s second season is, like the first, a shrewd and ultimately powerful investigation of the way the mediated lives of contemporary high school students are complicated on a daily basis. One of the season’s most significant preoccupations is the idea of history: the fact that things live on online, whether they’re shared on social media and resurrected by Facebook’s memories feature or private conversations saved by a classmate who can later use them against you. But for as much as Peter’s second season of his own documentary series American Vandal delves into this sense of history, the second season of Netflix’s comedy series American Vandal resists its own continuities, creating the promise of seriality through Peter and Sam’s return but then failing to explore it in any significant way. Living up to the first season was always going to be a challenge, but by erasing Peter and Sam’s investment in their documentary I’d argue that American Vandal never even got close to trying to recreate the complexity of the work done last year. Instead they settled for a solid effort to craft a similar mystery, creating an engrossing and yet ultimately emptier narrative experience.

Cultural Observations

  • As was the case in the first season, the show’s commitment to verisimilitude in its social media posts remains an inspiration. I will say that the “Photoshopped Childhood Photographs” situation was a little more conspicuous this season, but it was some best-in class work within that particular creative field, even if that’s a pretty low bar.
  • However, a much bigger issue this season was casting—as always, the level of recognizability of specific actors varies depending on your perspective. For some, Jimmy Tatro and Calum Worthy in season one were potentially distracting for those familiar with Tatro’s YouTube videos or Worthy’s Disney Channel work, although that was less of an issue for me. But this time around, I would argue that the casting of one of the lead actors from another Netflix series is a bridge too far, especially given that the show can’t use hair color to change their appearance in any way (as they do with a former MTV lead). Overall, I would advocate for a “you cannot have been a series regular or major recurring presence on a scripted television series” rule for any future seasons, but I acknowledge how impossible that is in the context of peak TV.
  • Ming is credited as providing additional photography, so we have to presume that he might have been behind the camera in scenes where both Sam and Peter are in frame, but he’s never actually acknowledged in any way? I thought that was weird.
  • Watching this made me realize two things. The first is that while I will acknowledge that—as Sam notes—poop is inherently funny, I realized I don’t find it that funny, and I do think that is an issue the season never entirely solves. I know some other critics also noted that your experience with the season will very much depend on how grossed are you out by poop, and I was honestly pretty okay with it? I don’t know what that says about me, exactly.
  • As this is posting early on Friday, before most of you have had time to watch the entire season, I limited the specifics of my discussion above. But I do have some spoilery thoughts on the season, which I’m going to leave below. You have been warned that this is when spoilers start.

Spoiler Observations (No Seriously I’m Going to Spoil The Season)

  • I think the resolution to this story is very smart. One of the things that hooked me into the story from the beginning was how the investigation unveiled how many students shared the school’s stated motive for Kevin to have committed these crimes. And while ultimately only one student’s motive was actually driving the specific crimes, he successfully tapped into the feelings of isolation that his former classmates were experiencing, vulnerabilities that everybody could see, but no one really stopped to understand or explore. It covers a lot of ground that I delve into when I teach New Media Technologies to my students, and I appreciate that the season adds up to another set of meaningful observations about youth culture and new media.
  • It can’t possibly compete with the “Does anyone know CPR?” reveal, but I did once again get that tinge of excitement when I pieced together that Grayson was the catfish. It’s a much more Scooby-Doo esque reveal—Christa was a significant part of the rest of the season even after her emergence a a suspect, while Grayson just disappears until he’s fingered as the culprit—but it still lets you feel smart for being a small step ahead of Peter if you (like me) binged the season and recalled his job at the cell phone kiosk as soon as we met “Brooke.”
  • If there’s anything the mystery is missing structurally, there really isn’t a point in the investigation comparable to Nana’s Party, and Peter and Sam’s deep dive into the evidence therein. The Skip Party is similar observed through social media, but it’s a much more isolated concept. I realize Nana’s Party would be impossible to replicate, and understand why they wouldn’t try, but it does contribute to the sense that Peter and Sam are sort of sleepwalking through this investigation.
  • The conclusion notes that Grayson was ultimately charged with seven different felonies, but it doesn’t specifically acknowledge that one of them would have to be child pornography possession and distribution, which seemed weird to me.
  • Yes, I am so vain that I constantly think that whenever a television show introduces a character named Myles—spelled with a Y—that they are trolling me in some way. Anyway, #JusticeForMyles, who got kicked out of the Horsehead Collective off-screen.

 

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9 Comments

Filed under American Vandal

9 responses to “Scatology over Seriality: The missed opportunity of the still very good American Vandal season two

  1. gaufqwi

    Who in the cast is supposedly too familiar? I mean, I knew Griffin Gluck from stuff before season 1, and I had a few “Hey, that guy/lady” moments with some of the adult character actors, but nobody else jumped out at me.

    • DeRon Horton, who plays Lou this season, is the co-lead-ish Lionel on Netflix’s Dear White People, while Taylor Dearden was one of the two leads on MTV’s Sweet/Vicious.

      • Paul F

        I knew Sarah Burns from a load of stuff (HTGAWM, Enlightened, Wet Hot American Summer, Big Little Lies) and seeing her took me out of it immediately. She didn’t have that big a role though, so it didn’t bother me that much after the initial moment.

        I still need to catch up on S2 of Dear White People, so I didn’t recognise Horton.

  2. Bryan

    It’s a fair critique, but I think it’s a critique that treats “American Vandal” as a scripted television show (which it is), rather than as a true crime documentary created by Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund. What I love SO much about this show, aside from it being very funny, moving, and insightful, is how realistic it is. You could do a true crime marathon of Serial, Making A Murderer, The Jinx, and American Vandal, and in my mind, the only indication that American Vandal is satire rather than the real thing is that the crimes themselves are ridiculous. You (and others) even acknowledge how critical the realism is to the show when talking about how distracting it is to cast Taylor Dearden and and DeRon Horton. It’s not often that a TV show gets complaints about casting because they cast a known entity and it takes them out of the realism of the show.

    So it’s odd to me that you acknowledge the importance of realism while seemingly wanting the show to be more like a scripted TV show. It’s perfectly reasonable that, in the real world, #WhoDrewTheDicks could be a major incident at a school that leads to a true crime-style show. But it strains that realism to think that the same school, or a rival school, or even people that Peter and Sam would have personal connections to would have a SECOND major incident such as @TheTurdBurglar. If real-world Peter and Sam wanted to do a second season of their show, given it’s popularity and the Netflix backing, their two options would basically be to pick a much more insignificant story in their lives, which would probably cause them to stretch things beyond what the story could handle, or find a much deeper story elsewhere but not really have a connection to it. Peter and Sam aren’t thinking “man, Gabi was a great character and there were interesting plotlines, we should bring her back in Season 2” or “we need to show viewers where Dylan is now”. They’re thinking “let’s dive into a new true crime story”. So while it’s unfortunate that they’re less connected to the material, I also think it’s far more realistic, and bringing some of the Season 1 characters back would strain that reality a bit. But it’s also important that Peter and Sam be involved because the show that we’re “watching” isn’t really the show created and written by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda; the show we’re watching is the show “shot and produced by Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund” (as evidenced by the opening credits, which are the credits for the show’s world, as opposed to our world…and also the one time I never skipped the intro on Netflix).

    TL;DR: The criticism is valid for a scripted TV show created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, but seems out of place for this show, which seems to be going for a realistic true crime documentary shot and produced by Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund. But overall, even if the show isn’t perfect, it really is a great show.

    • I do think that it would have been silly if the second season had literally been about Sam and Peter’s friend group in the way you describe there. Mind you, it never stopped Dexter from continually stretching credulity as to the number of serial killers in Miami, but I do agree that it would have been unrealistic if they had been just as involved in season two as they were in season one.

      However, I think it’s weird that we never see Peter grappling with the success of season one in any way. He was so in his head during the production of the first season, and a crucial part of the finale was his realization that he may have gone too far. And yet in season two, he acts assuredly in almost all cases, and when he does have moments of uncertainty he and Sam work through them without any type of reflection. I think what I wanted was some evidence that their experience telling this story was being haunted by their experience telling the last one.

      It’s fair to argue that those moments likely happened but we never saw them on camera, but part of me does feel that Peter would be under pressure from his “fans” to continue telling his own story in addition to the story of the Turd Burglar. To me, it’s unrealistic that Peter and Sam’s contentious relationship never materializes despite moments of tension that pop up in their investigation, and it’s weird to me that at no point in their discussions do they reflect back on what they learned from trying to solve Dylan’s case as a warning or potentially a beacon.

      You’re right that it would be too televisual if they had made it more of a sequel, but part of what made season one so interesting was its commentary on the ethics of completing these investigations, and thus Peter and Sam as real people. And so it’s awkward to me that they chose to keep Peter and Sam onboard but had them prove so profoundly neutral, without even offering some kind of reflective note that would explain how their approach was changed by what we saw in season one. It’s not about bringing back Gabi or Dylan—it’s about the documentary operating as the product of two high school students who might feel pressure to continue those stories, be haunted by some of what they did or uncovered in season one, and perhaps use that as fuel for conflict that never materializes.

      • Bryan

        That’s a good point. I think, like you mentioned, part of the reason may have been that this season felt like it was more in the style of Making A Murderer, where Peter and Sam have the entire season in the can before releasing it, so they had a chance to edit out things/characters/ideas that might not have ended up being relevant. Whereas season 1 was more like Serial season 1, where the show/podcast was part of the story and new leads and questions were being proposed by the audience once the early episodes were distributed so they couldn’t cut out anything, even if those things ended up going nowhere (for example, Peter outing Sam’s crush, which ultimately had nothing to do with the crime, even though it was both dramatically and comically interesting). It also meant that you couldn’t see any fallout from what Peter and Sam were doing, since none of the information was getting out to the audience in near-real time, like it was in season 1.

        ***SPOILERS BELOW***

        But one good point that this raises is that Peter is directly responsible for The Dump. If he doesn’t DM “Hi Grayson” and just goes straight to the cops like Chloe and Sam want, then Grayson ends up arrested and doesn’t release the photos/videos (probably). And there were several times throughout the season where Sam and/or Chloe think they should take evidence to the cops, but Peter says no. I’m curious if season 3 (if there is a season 3?) will dive into this at all. After all, it’s possible that no one other than Grayson, Sam and Chloe know that Peter DM’d Grayson, but now that season 2 is out, people will. It seems like that could come back to bite him next season (and makes it seem like the lessons he learned from season 1 maybe didn’t stick, whereas season 3 might have a “why should we tell you things when you’ve only caused pain to many of the people in your first two stories” vibe. In other words, maybe the creators are setting up a much bigger character arc for Peter in Season 3, even if they had to forego it this season, because now there will be fallout from how Peter handled this season.

        • Yeah, I think the idea of Peter being responsible for the Dump raises a lot of the ethical questions that season one dealt with, but with no followup. If they had all of Grayson’s text conversations with his Catfish victims, they certainly had his conversations with Peter as well, right? That would imply to me that the police would have known about it, and that ultimately whatever responsibility he held was looked past. I saw someone online suggest it could constitute obstruction of justice, but he was literally about to go tell the police about it, so I don’t think it would be taken that seriously. It seems pretty likely that Grayson had the Dump prepared in advance of Peter’s text, and he likely would have released it without warning the second the cops had knocked on his door. But it’s frustrating that the show doesn’t even seem to acknowledge such a key moment of Peter getting caught up in creating a narrative climax (the confrontation of the perpetrator) over the actual criminal investigation.

          The fact that he leaves it in would imply, based on the logic that unlike in season one they have the ability to edit out parts of the investigation deemed irrelevant, that it is not incriminating enough to obscure the sequence of events. But that’s sketchy, and I’d certainly love if Season 3 integrated some of the fallout from this season in a way that season one did within the text itself. But I don’t think they planted the seeds for that, despite the fact I think it would have been pretty easy to just slightly flesh out the material that’s already there.

          • From a story point of view I think the issue was that without The Dump they wouldn’t have know about the catfished relationships (beyond Jenna’s after she handed off her records to them directly).

            It presumably would have come out in the trial, but that would have been less satisfying in story terms. Trials are boring.

            If Peter and Sam reflected on how they potentially caused The Dump, it’s not reflected in the series so far… But perhaps it could become a factor in future?

  3. The thing I loved most about American Vandal season 1 was that it was so earnestly constructed. I think in the hands of less skilled creatives it could easily have become overt parody, but instead it did an amazing job of avoid this. Season 2, delightfully, has done the same.

    But I agree a little that some of the aspects of the flimmakers’ relationship and struggles aren’t as well explored in the second season as they were in the first.

    One of the things that I found most intense, although I suspect most viewers wouldn’t have in the same way, was the way in which the filmmakers’ injection of themselves had the potential to negatively impact other people around them. This happened repeatedly throughout the film but was never addressed by Peter and Sam.

    However this too seems potentially in keeping with the artifice of the show. In making a documentary like this there is the constant fear that your observation will change the outcome (possibly in a worse way for those involved). And there are likely times that it does. It’s easy to dwell on these pivotal moments, but there’s definitely a desire also not to highlight these decisions which could have caused these things.

    When Peter and Sam’s questions directly lead to Gonzo turning up the next day with a black eye, they don’t question they actions. And ultimately when an impulsive DM at the end causes harm to all of the characters they’ve grown close to – they never address the way their actions caused harm.

    It would be interesting to see if a season three might address this painful lesson on their part and see them a little more “gun shy” about potentially harming others in their next investigation.

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