[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.