I didn’t count how many times the word d–k is said in Netflix’s new original series “American Vandal,” but it’s a lot.
The documentary-style series – which debuts on Netflix Friday – satirizes the serious true crime documentaries like Netflix’s own “Making a Murderer” and HBO’s “The Jinx.”
Since the podcast “Serial” in 2014, interest in unsolved crimes and the possibly unjust imprisonment has reached its peak, thanks to the internet – and in particular, sites like Reddit.
“American Vandal” is essentially a mockumentary. AV club geek, high school sophomore, and aspiring filmmaker Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) is shooting a documentary that aims to get to the bottom of the biggest crime in Hanover High School history: who did the d–ks? Peter is fascinated with the possible innocence of Dylan (Jimmy Tatro), who gets expelled after being found guilty of spray painting penises on 27 cars in the teachers’ parking lot (with little evidence). The crime results in over $100,000 in damages.
The show works because its characters take themselves – and the crime – as seriously as the documentaries it’s mocking do. Within this silly world the writers created, the absurd obsession with true crime in the real world is taken very seriously.
“American Vandal” will make you laugh out loud often, and the immersive mystery will make you think.
Peter spends so much time with Dylan that he finds himself sympathizing with him. And you might find yourself emotionally attached to Dylan, too, despite yourself.
Dylan antagonizes teachers. He has a name for his group of friends (The Way Back Boys). He will probably remind you of certain potheads who went to your high school. In every episode (which are only 30 minutes), Peter finds new evidence, gets an enlightening interview, or makes a discovery about a student or teacher that gets him closer to proving Dylan’s innocence. But some findings convince Peter that Dylan is guilty, and that he’s put all this effort in this documentary for nothing.
Like most poignant comedies, “American Vandal” has something serious to say behind all the bathroom talk. It’s not only addressing the absurd obsession with true crime, it also addresses the absurdity of high school, being a teenager, and social media. At one point, Peter’s documentary goes “viral.” It gets hundreds (!) of views on YouTube, and fans start tweeting and Redditing their disturbing theories. So like New York City being a character on “Sex and the City,” Snapchat and Instagram are characters on “American Vandal,” as they prove to be very important to proving Dylan’s innocence (or guilt).
But more importantly, “American Vandal” – like “Making a Murderer” – addresses the way people are judged before they’re given a chance, and the lack of justice within a system that’s supposed to be just. I won’t tell you if Dylan is guilty, but the fact that he’s expelled for the crime just because one student (the brilliantly named Alex Tremboli) thinks he saw him do it is a smart take on society, high school, and the true crime phenomenon all in one. Everyone is human, especially Dylan. He’s a bit dumb, but he has some feelings and a future.
But the smartest thing about “American Vandal” isn’t the case or its underlying comments on the real world. While it’s impressively thorough and true to what a high school in 2017 is like, the most clever thing is how bad the whole thing is.
“American Vandal” is meant to appear like a documentary made by a 15-year-old boy and his friend, both sophomores at this high school. So . . . it’s not a great documentary. The editing is off, it’s repetitive, and some theories Peter investigates come out of nowhere. But what more would you expect from a 15 year old with no driver’s license, access to AV equipment, and a YouTube account?
Watch the trailer for “American Vandal” below: