Right off the bat: American Vandal is one of the funniest shows I have seen in years. If you were put off by its seemingly stupid premise — an eight-episode true-crime parody set in a SoCal high school, whose inciting incident is an act of phallic vandalism — don’t be. While the tropes of true crime have been parodied a million times, American Vandal works because it isn’t just a one-note SNL sketch stretched out to series length — it’s a legitimate whodunnit that takes its central mystery, characters, and premise very, very seriously. By the third episode, you will want to know who drew the dicks in the school parking lot just as badly as you will want to know where Adnan Syed was between 3 and 7 p.m. on the day of Hae Min Lee’s murder.
The setup is this: 27 dicks have been spray-painted on 27 cars in the parking lot of Hanover High School. Dylan Maxwell (YouTuber Jimmy Tatro) — a burnout, screwup, and known whiteboard dick-drawer — is fingered for the crime and gets expelled, despite insisting upon his innocence. Armed with a video camera and an insatiable desire for truth, Hanover High morning show co-host Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) — along with his sidekick Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), and their “head of transpo” Gabi Granger (the senior who drives them around because they don’t have their licenses, played by Camille Hyde) — sets out to discover “who did the dicks” once and for all.
“Consider for a moment the type of person who would spray-paint dicks on cars in the staff parking lot,” says Maldonado, as the camera pans over the faces of kids in the high-school yearbook.
In his earnest commitment to teasing out the details of the crime, Peter is both a convincing high-school video dweeb (down to the “not very good, shitty, really really bad” art films he posts on Vimeo, according to Sam) and a perfect parody of the obsessive Sarah Koenig–esque reporter who demands answers at all costs. Like Koenig, Maldonado is concerned not just with solving the mystery of who drew the dicks, but questioning the innate preconceptions and biases that inform any given narrative. It also offers up a great riff on the meta-narrative surrounding true-crime shows: When the documentary goes viral in the school midway through the season, Peter gets suspended, and #freedylan starts trending on Twitter, along with fan theories of varying plausibility (#TheJanitorDidIt #DickHolograms #ISISdidit).
American Vandal works because while the main crime is ridiculous, the characters and their social interactions are completely, 100 percent plausible. There are none of the one-note Regina Georges that tend to populate pop-culture high schools. Dylan is an amiable slacker whose face is frozen in a permanent goofy snicker, prone to making whale noises in class and apologizing to his girlfriend with YouTube rap-parody videos — a deadbeat whose naïve simplicity makes him impossible to detest (the creators say they imagined him as “Steven Avery [as] a SoCal stoner”). You also have Mr. “Kraz” Krazanski, the wannabe-cool teacher who calls his office “the Man Cave”; Christa Carlyle, the student body president always protesting various campus injustices like not getting the day off for Rosh Hashanah; and the “Wayback Boys,” Dylan’s stoner crew, whose YouTube channel involves pranks with titles like “baby farting” and “nun humping.”
The show takes all the recognizable tropes of true-crime shows — the pioneering reporter who gets too entangled with his subjects, the self-serious focus on “truth,” the attention to minutiae, the attempt to draw connections between seemingly disparate things — and uses them as a commentary on the way that things play out in the detail-obsessed world of high school, where gossip is currency, where everybody is connected, and where everyone take things very, very seriously.
A standout plotline involves Peter and Sam trying to establish if eyewitness Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy) — who claims he saw Dylan drawing the dicks — is credible, by figuring out if he lied about getting a hand job at Camp Miniwaka from school hottie Sarah Pearson (complete with high-definition digital reenactments of the alleged hand job). Trimboli’s story doesn’t seem plausible, because, well, everyone agrees Sarah is way out of his league. Yet there’s also cause for reasonable doubt. Trimboli did have a “legendary” performance in the summer camp color war that summer. And the clincher: Alex has screenshot evidence that Sara once sent him a text that was just the word ‘heyy’ with two Ys. It may seem like a small thing in the scheme of things, but as everyone who has ever analyzed a text message from a crush knows, these details matter.
“Everybody in history has known that if you text someone heyy with two Ys, you want to fuck. Or give a hand job,” says Trimboli defiantly.
“Each Y is like, more wanting the D,” confirms Gabi.
“Collectively, we agreed that the extra Y was definitely more flirtatious,” Peter muses in voice-over, in perfect, measured NPR tone. “I found myself wanting to side with Sarah, wanting to believe that Alex Trimboli is a liar. But then I go back to that hey with two Ys text and honestly … it does feel like a request for the D.”
While TV shows are getting better at showing how teenagers use technology, there’s often still a level of “this is how adults thinks kids act” versus “how kids actually act” when it comes to social media. Yet American Vandal never misses a beat. The creators understand how teens’ perpetually documented world provides all the fodder you need for forensic investigation. A character’s “latergram” becomes an important alibi; Someone breaks up with someone else over an ugly Instagram boomerang.
My favorite episode is set entirely around Nana’s party, a rowdy kegger at “Rachel Balducci’s grandma’s house” — an essential location in the show’s narrative, like Serial’s “Best Buy parking lot.” (“You’ve heard about Nana’s party before,” narrates Peter. “Nana’s party was all over social media. Ari’s sister brought weed from Vermont. Ryan Gould drank a fifth of vodka. Julia Perez wasn’t wearing a bra and she shit on the floor. Everyone from school was there.”) In order to determine who stole a spray-paint can from Nana’s garage, Peter takes it upon himself to re-create the party entirely through Snapchat footage from the evening. With meticulous time stamps and a high-def digital diorama, he uses his classmates’ footage to take us through the major events of the party — exchange student Ming’s first beer, Brandon’s promposal to Gabi where he pushed her in the pool, Julia Perez crushing up Adderall, the “hottest Nanas” competition where a bunch of the guys dressed up in grandma’s clothes, Ming’s ninth beer — in order to establish a comprehensive timeline.
American Vandal is so good because it’s a parody that doesn’t simply mimic but reveals; it’s genuinely illuminating, both about the formula of true crime as a genre (as the show proves, anything shot in a certain style with a certain level of earnestness can be as gripping and engrossing as the most high-stakes murder case) and the dynamics and dramas of high-school life. While I never solved crimes as a sophomore, I can well imagine myself and my friends debriefing the events of Nana’s party with the same earnest attention to detail as Peter and Sam, preoccupied by some inane gossip or interpersonal drama that felt life-changing at the time. The show’s genius is how it sucks us into its social landscape. You won’t just care about finding out if Dylan did the dicks; you will care if Sam and Gabi ever get together, if Mrs. Shapiro was actually going to cancel off-campus lunch, if Sara Pearson actually gave Alex Trimboli a hand job. You will care almost as much as you cared about these things when you were in high school yourself, when every romance and drama, crime and misdemeanor, felt like the most high-stakes thing in the world.