by Jeremy Rogers
The initial reveal trailer for Netflix’s American Vandal showed great production value along with cooperation from Cracked and Funny or Die contributors. It had the potential to be amazing or a gigantic dumpster fire of massive proportions. Could this satirical mockumentary spin a cohesive story while also finding interesting ways to make jokes about penises?
The long and short of it
The cars of 27 teachers and faculty members at Hanover High School in Oceanside, California were defaced with spray-painted depictions of male genitalia, and the security footage of the parking lot was deleted during the time of the offense. The administration’s prime suspect is senior Dylan Maxwell, a well-known prankster and illustrator of obscene male anatomy. The school board has provided a motive, a way of accessing the security footage, and a witness placing Dylan at the scene of the crime. Their main problem? Peter Maldonado, an amateur student filmmaker insistent on getting to the bottom of Dylan’s predicament and finding out who definitively defaced the vehicles.
During his investigation Peter and his friends Sam Ecklund and Gabi Granger all work together to get to the bottom of the vandalism, but the deeper into the mystery they go, the more questions they unearth. As things come to a head, friendships are put in jeopardy, laws are broken, and plenty of penises are drawn.
I watched for the story; I swear!
A mystery show, even one about defacement of this nature, is only as good as its central mystery. There is a bit of reality that needs to be eschewed to suspend disbelief, such as California’s two-party consent law (which mandates that the recorder and the person being recorded both have to consent to being filmed), but ultimately there is little needed to get engrossed into the mystery of who drew on the teacher’s cars. However, even though the show does a great job of setting up the mystery, it struggles to keep the consistency up towards the end. The actual mystery part of the show kind of just fizzles out by not providing a satisfying ending.
Another factor that hinders the show is the logic of American Vandal. As the show comes to a close there are a few too many instances of logical leaps that are left unexplained. One repeated claim is that the school board’s case against Dylan in court is all based on circumstantial evidence, but they simultaneously state that the case against Dylan is strong. Other assumptions are made towards the end of the show that feel rushed and a bit too convenient. It is never enough to ruin the show, as the assumptions made are all reasonable; it just rankles that the alternative assumptions that audience members may have are never dismissed in a satisfactory fashion.
The members of the show
What is a true crime/detective story without interesting, engaging characters? (Apparently, L.A. Noire.) Without a cast of sympathetic characters, detective stories would fall flat. Luckily American Vandal brings several great actors on to portray the characters. Jimmy Tatro does an amazing job portraying the prank master himself, Dylan Maxwell. The mannerisms of a dumb stoner who doesn’t take school seriously are brought to life in a sympathetic way that never feels like the portrayal strays too far into parody. Tyler Alvarez makes another great performance as documentarian Peter Maldonado. One scene that stood out was in an interview with Dylan’s girlfriend Mackenzie Wagner. As her character is pushed to her limit in a tense interview, actress Camille Ramsey seamlessly transitions from anger to tearful despair. It’s not often that such young actors are able to pull off crying on demand while making a convincing performance.
Not all the characters feel natural though. Most of the time this comes from overacting, actors trying a bit too hard to insert character into their portrayals. This makes characters like assistant documentarian Sam Ecklund, History teacher Mr. Kraz, and Spanish teacher Mrs. Shapiro all come off as less-than believable. There are no bad performances in the show, but there are characters who constantly remind the viewer that they are watching a satire with overblown stereotypes.
It’s not the variety of jokes; it’s how you use them.
Seeing the trailer, it is easy to think that the show would be nothing but middle school humor, and largely that assumption rings true when Dylan and his friends’ idiocy isn’t being played for laughs. While the humor is often somewhat juvenile in nature, it never feels unnatural or that the script was changed to force in more jokes. Everything feels relatively natural.
Feature image from American Vandal
Despite a less-than-satisfying mystery, ‘American Vandal’ is a sight to behold with its strong array of actors and its multitude of genuinely funny moments. While the show may not win any Emmys, it is a solid entry in the Netflix catalog. This fantastic comedy is great for passing time and even better for passing time with friends.