The prank is juvenile. On a non-teaching day, 27 teachers’ car are vandalised at a high school in a small town called Hanover. The vehicles are spray-painted with penises and there is one student who is well-known for this type of activity, “burnout-loser” and “f*ck-up” Dylan Maxwell. He is accused and then suspended by the school. But the evidence against him is circumstantial and the school’s case rides on the account of one eye-witness. Sensing an injustice has taken place, two AV students, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, decide to investigate and make a documentary of what they discover and thus the eight-part AMERICAN VANDAL series is born.
AMERICAN VANDAL is the Netflix documentary parody of true-crime shows, some of which have been successful on Netflix itself. If you’ve seen Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer or The Keepers, then you will know the comedic targets that series’ creators, Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, are aiming at. Although the show definitely operates as a mock-documentary, as it unfolds, viewers may find themselves in somewhat unexpected territory—solving the mystery, despite its seemingly low-stakes, actually becomes important.
Yacenda and Perrault have experience working for Funny or Die and CollegeHumor and indeed, the dick joke origins of their premise are utterly pushed for every laugh that they, and their team, can muster. But beyond this level of comedy, there is a surprisingly sophisticated work that has been created. AMERICAN VANDAL is a parody of a television genre, an examination of high school communities and a character study of teenagers. If you continue watching the episodes, not only will you likely be amused, but you may find yourself wanting to know more about the characters because they are surprisingly detailed and well acted by the young cast. You’ll be engaged by the excellent performances of Jimmy Tatro (Dylan), Camille Ramsey (Mackenzie), Camille Hyde (Gabi), Tyler Alvarez (Peter) and Griffin Gluck (Sam); you may even find yourself emotionally caught-up with these characters, such is the skill and assurance of the talented cast, writers and creators.
Like many critics, I began watching not believing I could enjoy more than one episode of “dick jokes”, but I found myself hooked by precisely the same techniques and tricks the actual true crime shows use. AMERICAN VANDAL is an entertaining series that operates on several levels at once; it is broadly funny, satirically amusing, dramatically subtle and unexpectedly thorough in the territory that it covers. There is currently talk of a second season. You can catch up with these first eight episodes right now on Netflix. (7/10)