“It’s the Golden Age of television,” they say. And, looking at the lineup of what’s on right now, it’s hard to deny it. There’s no question that television has evolved from what it was even ten or fifteen years ago, but it sometimes feels like people are talking about the Golden Age of TV because nobody can stop talking about it. And it can often feel pretty overwhelming to stay caught up on everything that’s popular, and even easier to reminisce about the days when millions upon millions of families gathered around the television every week to watch All in the Family or Cheers or even Friends. However, nobody in 2017 can seem to coordinate their viewing schedule because there’s just too much stuff. Are we entering a collective fatigue from all this new material? And, more importantly, how does a great show get people’s attention when every show is great?
Netflix has carved out an impressive niche for itself as the distributor of some truly quality television. From House of Cards to BoJack Horseman, there’s something for everybody on Netflix and that’s completely intentional. They cast a wide net in the hopes that they’ll attract anybody to their original programming. But have you ever noticed just how many true crime documentaries and murder mysteries there are? The list goes on and on, and it seems like there’s a new one every day. Just this week I was scanning and saw titles like The Confession Tapes, Casting JonBenet, Fire Chasers, and more, which doesn’t even scratch the surface or cover the most popular ones like Making a Murderer or Hot Girls Wanted.
Then, you have the more controversial stuff, usually fictional material or adaptations like 13 Reasons Why, a recent Netflix original that was heavily criticized for both marketing itself to teenagers and its exploitation of sensitive subjects like rape and suicide for the sake of entertainment, under the guise of “awareness.” And while I think it’s important for artists to be able to tell the stories they want to tell, it’s also up to companies like Netflix to vet the material and make sure it’s not needlessly graphic for the sake of garnering attention. And, when you look at a lot of “prestige shows” that are on TV right now, it’s hard not to feel like they compete for attention by being as gruesome as possible.
All of this brings us to American Vandal, a mockumentary distributed by Netflix, produced by Funny or Die, and co-created by Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault. The story follows a high school troublemaker named Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) who’s accused of spray painting dicks on all 27 cars in the school’s faculty parking lot. With just a brief introduction to the character, it’s not that hard to buy into Dylan’s guilt. He is, according to his classmates and teachers, “a known dick drawer,” making it a pretty open-and-shut case for the local school board. However, Dylan insists he’s not responsible, and a couple of aspiring filmmakers/classmates of his – Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) – decide to pursue the truth by making a documentary series called American Vandal.
Conceptually, the whole thing has the potential to completely implode on itself at any moment, especially because it’d be so easy to phone in a half-assed attempt at comedy, having ample opportunities to make the same stylistic choices that are often perceived as being lazy or excuses for no-budget crap to turn a quick buck. But the most miraculous thing about American Vandal isn’t that it’s just pretty good, but that it’s honestly kind of incredible. In addition to being one of the funniest shows you’ll watch all year, it carries a genuinely interesting mystery at its core and follows that mystery to its most logical conclusion. The show works because it takes the matter of drawn dicks more seriously than any reasonable person ever could. In short, it is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of how high school can feel both completely inconsequential and permanently life-changing, often simultaneously.
Most of the first two episodes are spent setting up the major players at the fictional Southern California high school, Hanover High. Among them are: ultimate teacher’s pet Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), who was the school board’s only witness but is discovered to have a habit of stretching the truth for attention; Christa Carlyle (G. Hannelius), student body president and full-time activist; Mr. Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan), a laid-back history teacher who has a habit of getting a bit too comfortable with students; Ms. Shapiro (Karly Rothenberg), a supposedly angelic Spanish teacher who may or may not be pulling some major strings behind closed doors; Mackenzie Wagner (Camille Ramsey), Dylan’s on-again-off-again girlfriend; and Vice Principal Keene (Matt Miller), who may know more about the true identity of the dick drawer than he initially lets on.
The show also focuses heavily on Dylan’s friends, who call themselves The Way Back Boys (“because we go way back”). Comprised of Spencer Diaz (Eduardo Franco), Brianna Gagne (Jessica Juarez), and Lucas Wiley (Lou Wilson), the Way Back Boys spend most of their time smoking weed and pulling mediocre pranks on unassuming victims, but they’re mostly harmless and maintain Dylan’s innocence. Even more convincing is the fact that there’s actually video and audio evidence of Dylan hanging out at Lucas’ house around the time when the crime was committed. The only thing that places him at the scene of the crime is that he was supposedly visiting Mackenzie right when the dicks were being drawn, between 2 and 2:30 PM.
And at first, it’s kind of easy to believe them when they say Dylan didn’t do it. The Way Back Boys don’t seem to be the sharpest tools in the shed and tend to want credit for the pranks they pull. As we learn more about that fateful, dick drawing day, we learn that they were already pulling another prank, one that they thought was the most legendary thing of all time. For that reason, it wouldn’t make sense for Dylan to suddenly leave a prank he’d been working on for some time just to go do something that, in his mind, wasn’t quite as funny. Of course, a number of factors play into why Dylan could have been responsible, but nobody seems too interested in the truth, only continuing to assume what they think they know about Hanover’s most apathetic student.
At once, American Vandal is a brilliantly conceived comedy, a surprisingly effective spoof of Netflix’s (and our culture’s) own obsession with true crime stories, and a genuinely compelling case for focusing on entertainment that doesn’t constantly leave a bad taste in your mouth. Every single time the show has the opportunity to take the easy route – whether by including the hallmark racism, sexism, and homophobia that passes for humor in a lot of mainstream comedy or by upping the stakes with a rape or murder to keep people interested – it instead insists on getting the most realistic, down-to-earth version of the story possible. The kicker is, those reactions are usually hilarious on their own. The humor stems not from trying to make its audience laugh, but committing to the ridiculousness of the concept itself and believing in its validity when others would have been too afraid to alienate its audience.
I think a lot of why I love American Vandal can be summed up by this quote from co-creator Tony Yacenda, who said in an interview with Mashable:
“We had such a talented cast too. These kids are so great. Some of them come from a comedy background. And we would cut some episodes sometimes and we would hear a great punchline or a great tag to a joke, and then it just felt too much like a mockumentary, even though it got a good laugh. Like “oh, that kind of tips the audience and brings it out of documentary language,” and then it’s a mockumentary language, and then it changes why the audience is watching the show. We wanted to really keep the eye on the ball and make it about this investigation. So we ended up cutting some of the funniest jokes, ’cause we wanted all the humor to come from a really real place and the investigation.”
American Vandal is brave, daring, and original without being crude, unnecessarily graphic, or off-putting. Even when it seems like the show needs to go in that direction to keep viewers’ attention – a subplot emerges late in the game involving a potential teacher-student relationship – the writers instead use it as an opportunity to wink at the audience and force them to question their own needs and desires as participants in the collective schadenfreude that’s been poisoning our culture, an idea which is reiterated with an ambiguous ending that’s become a staple of the genre at this point. It’s the kind of purely enjoyable but still consistently engrossing kind of series we need more of, and there’s something in this tale of two unlikely heroes and their pursuit of justice in the face of 27 dicks.
This thing fires off on all cylinders for eight episodes without missing a single beat, and it’s easily the funniest and most well-made comedy (or story, for that matter) I’ve seen this year. Jimmy Tatro emerges as a star, playing Dylan with the kind of attention to character detail usually reserved for “serious” shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. He consistently defies expectations while also doing and saying exactly what you might expect; he often inspires frustration, empathy, and genuine reflection in the same sentence while never stepping out of character or feeling like a manufactured product of what adults think teenagers sound like. In other words, he’s a person. And American Vandal thrives on the credibility of its realism.
Even when the show seems to be patting itself on the back in its second half, when Peter’s American Vandal series goes viral, the whole thing feels strangely credible because it’s a story we’ve heard a million times before. And in an era when distrust of the government is the highest it’s been in decades, it’s not so crazy to believe the story of a rogue student getting to the bottom of what could be a school-wide conspiracy involving some spray-painted dicks and a student they’d rather do without.
It may not actually be real, but it sure as hell feels like it. In the case of both this show and the assertion of Dylan Maxwell’s guilt, sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes you want the pieces to fit and you want something to be true so badly that you’ll make it so at any cost. And other times, people are so used to being perceived a certain way that, even if they know it isn’t true, they’ll do what they have to in order to play the part and fulfill people’s expectations. For a show that starts off as a story about #WhoDrewTheDicks, American Vandal successfully tackles some pretty important issues about the inability to escape the ubiquity of social media and constantly feeding a persona in a pursuit of acceptance. It may be one of the truest stories of our time, and one of the more accurate portrayals of how we live today, how information is spread, and how easy it can be to get swept up in the madness of it all.
Sometimes all it takes is a couple dicks to change people’s lives.
GEEK Grade: A
American Vandal is currently streaming on Netflix.