If you don’t want to spoil the season one finale of Netflix’s 2017 sleeper hit, American Vandal for the love of god don’t Google “who did the dicks”. If you can’t imagine a world in which you would submit that search query, you clearly haven’t had the pleasure of making the mocu-series’ acquaintance. In my experience, not enough people have and that’s a shame.
It could be the show’s prickly premise — American Vandal’s unofficial log line is “Serial, but with dick jokes.” Maybe most people, myself excluded, won’t say, “You had me at dick jokes.” But here’s where I adopt the whiny voice befitting someone who enjoys toilet humor as much as I do: You just have to tryyyyyy it. Truuuuust me!
If you enjoy either Serial or dick jokes, though, I can almost guarantee you’ll love American Vandal, created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda of CollegeHumor. And if you’re lucky enough to enjoy both (and, honestly, who among us… ?), this canceled-before-its-time mystery series deserves a prominent spot on your Netflix “My List.”
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Set in the not-quite-historical year of our Lord 2015, American Vandal is an incisive, deadpan send-up of the true-crime genre, which experienced a remarkable renaissance in the same pop cultural epoch. In 2014, we had the podcast Serial, of course, and then HBO and Netflix delivered The Jinx and Making a Murderer, respectively, in short order. (Cult classic The Staircase was also dredged from the depths of 2004 with new episodes around this time, to meet the audience’s insatiable demand for the examination and narrativization of evidentiary minutiae.)
But American Vandal sets itself apart from the true-crime milieu by being… not true. Hulu has since gotten in on this fictional-true-crime beat with Only Murders in the Building, a comedy starring Selena Gomez that joins a growing tradition of mockumentaries, parodies, satires and spoofs of the genre, which American Vandal pioneered. So if you’ve binged Only Murders and haven’t yet seen American Vandal, you’ve got some catching up to do.
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Set in a nondescript West Coast high school, American Vandal is, in the world of the show, filmed by sophomore Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), his best friend. Their school, Hanover High, is reeling from a heinous crime: Someone has spray-painted dicks on 27 cars in the teachers’ parking lot, and the teachers demand justice. A witness to the crime, the sweaty-foreheaded Alex Trimboli, points a finger at Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), the school’s resident burnout. And everyone’s pretty content to place the blame on Dylan. Everyone, that is, except Peter and Sam.
Dylan has a good motive, a bad alibi, and a well-documented propensity for dick doodles. But with a little digging, it becomes clear that not everything adds up. For one thing, Alex Trimboli is a notorious liar. (Did he really get a hand job from the hottest girl in school, or did she merely text him “heyy” with two Ys?) And another: There was no ball hair included in the spray painted graffiti. Dylan’s dick pics always include ball hair.
The series is populated by the kind of hyperparticular archetypes not seen since the sexually active band geeks of Mean Girls. Social media use at Hanover High is unrelenting, but the show brooks no hand-wringing over screen time. In fact, the majority of the clues added to Peter and Sam’s string-crossed corkboard come from the digital detritus of Snapchat, Twitch, Instagram and text messages, and the audience comes to appreciate the implausible surfeit of saved Snaps taken the night of “Nana’s party.”
“Who did the dicks?” becomes American Vandal’s “Who shot JR?” (And it’s always “dicks,” never penises, schlongs or even ding-a-lings.) In the show’s second season, the central question morphs into, “Who is the Turd Burglar?” and its pursuit of justice is as childishly funny as season one’s. The only difference is that by season two you’re no longer surprised at how funny it can be when such lowbrow subject matter is given the highbrow treatment. It’s funny because it’s stupid.
What I love most about American Vandal is its ability to evolve. It would be easy enough for some studio exec or Big Data bot to come up with the “Serial meets dick jokes” premise and assume the scripts will just write themselves. But my hunch is that even the most talented yarn-spinners can’t carry an eight-episode arc on the backs of dicks alone. Instead American Vandal is a Trojan (tee-hee) horse, luring you in with dick-jokes candy, then serving up a wholesome, plant-based indictment of our lurid interest in the real crimes that traumatize real people.
Before the show reaches its polemic finale, though, it indulges the very whims it eventually eviscerates, by which I mean it becomes a genuinely engrossing mystery show. So maybe you don’t like toilet humor, but you must like the idea of having your cake and eating it too. In its way, American Vandal is like a nicotine patch, delivering a safe dosage of your craving to mitigate future harm. It’s all the indulgence of the true-crime experience without the guilt of treating someone’s death like must-see TV. Plus, it’s funny.
American Vandal’s truly compelling central mystery hits all the right true-crime beats: alibis examined and lied about; red herrings; CGI reproductions of alleged dockside hand jobs; a dick-drawing time-test to see if Alex Trimboli’s purported timeline is even feasible. Season one even has its own Nisha call — The Kiefer Sutherland voice mail — and there’s a thriving second-screen experience waiting for you on Reddit and in spoiler-laden theory roundups if you’re the rabbit-hole type.
Unfortunately, it seems American Vandal season three may be a hopeless dream at this point. Though initial headlines around Netflix’s ouster seemed promising (“‘American Vandal’ Canceled at Netflix, Will Be Shopped Elsewhere,” for instance), Perrault and Yacenda have since pivoted their raillery toward the world of esports, with a forthcoming Paramount Plus mockumentary called Players. But maybe, just maybe, if enough people take my advice and give the show a chance, the streaming gods will reward us with another season.
Who did the dicks, indeed. Give the show 15 minutes, and you’ll have to know, too.
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