It’s no secret that 2017 was the year for true crime documentaries. Netflix whet our appetites for the genre in the television market through programs like “Making a Murderer” and “Amanda Knox.” But amid all the dark conspiracies, Netflix also released “American Vandal.” A mockumentary series about a high school delinquent wrongly accused of drawing penises on teachers’ cars, Netflix perfectly satirizes its audience’s obsession with “true crime” as well as what it’s like to experience high school in this age of social media.
After four years of drawing penises on his teacher’s whiteboards and on his exams at Hanover High School, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) is the obvious target when mystery penises appear on cars in staff parking lots. After Maxwell is expelled, student journalists Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) investigate the matter, trying to uncover corruption in the school administration.
Even the premise of “American Vandal” is genius, the frame and cliches of true crime documentaries combined with the most immature and asinine offense imaginable. Everything from the vulgar episode titles (“A Limp Alibi”) to the overly dramatic sound effects are hilariously parallel to other true crime series. The ridiculousness of the crime compared to the seriousness of Peter and Sam forces viewers to recognize their own obsessions with uncovering any conspiracy, regardless of its gravity. The producers of the show also use classic true crime tropes, leaving viewers wanting more despite the idiocy. Even though you’re burning through eight episodes of fictional characters talking about graffiti penises, the high production value and cliffhangers are almost enough to justify laughing at excessive dick humor.
Another thing “American Vandal” nails is the realities of being a modern high school student. While the show sticks to the age-old stereotypes of high school students, like the acne-faced nerd or the perpetually-stoned burnout, much of the climactic events and “evidence” are a result of social media. Blurry 10-second Snapchats or the number of Ys used in a “heyy” text are enough to debunk witnesses, but the evidence from the institutions doesn’t prove to be more valid. Evidence from the administration is limited to students with clean records and teachers who have built up an irreversible hatred for Dylan, paralleling the cursory evidence often-times used by the justice system in actual criminal cases. Eventually, the evidence debate becomes as absurd as the crime itself.
Netflix knows what works and what its audience likes to watch. So, in good humor, it executed a well-produced and lighthearted four hours’ worth of penis jokes, all while balancing the original satiric concept with endearing character development. If you’ve found yourself swept up by the true crime wave, I would highly recommend “American Vandal” as a break from heavy controversy. Plus, if you don’t finish, Peter’s question will probably haunt you: is Dylan truly innocent or is Peter just Dylan’s greatest prank yet?