Netflix’s American Vandal is proof that dick jokes can be done in a smart, thoughtful and hilarious way.
The eight-part mockumentary miniseries, which makes its debut later this month, is a satirical take on the true crime genre. There are hints of Sarah Koenig’s Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer sewn into the core of American Vandal. The brilliance of American Vandal is its ability to walk the line between not taking itself seriously and treating its subject matter like an actual murder case.
There’s never a moment where the show isn’t winking about its satire, but the characters involved are dedicated to the investigation being conducted. It’s both goofy and serious, juvenile and mature. American Vandal captivates you in a way that few shows manage to do. It will also have you theorizing about the shape of a dick drawing more than you ever thought possible.
Instead of focusing on one murder case or a specific trial, American Vandal explores the expulsion of high school senior Dylan, who the school board suspects of spray painting 27 penises on 27 faculty cars. Dylan protests the expulsion, but it’s not until young, aspiring documentary filmmakers Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund decide to investigate. The next eight episodes are dedicated to figuring out who really spraypainted the dicks and clearing Dylan’s name.
The characters are the core of the series and it’s where American Vandal finds its best moments. This is a high school setting, which means that the majority of the character are between the ages of 14 and 18. There are a couple of older college students, parents and teachers involved, but the heart of the story is in the conversations and antics of a stereotypical teenager.
Every clique is represented along with every must-have teen moment. There are hookups at summer camp, a crazy house party, “promposal” (an outlandish proposal from one teenager to another asking them to prom) season and high schoolers smoking weed. The brilliance of American Vandal is that each rite of passage scene is deconstructed for the mockumentary. A hookup at summer camp gets the same forensic testing that a ballistics expert would use in a murder case. Even the key material used in a promposal becomes evidence in the case for Dylan’s innocence.
As an investigation, it’s captivating. As a piece of comedy, it’s one of the funniest shows I’ve seen this year. There’s an innocence to the dick jokes that isn’t usually associated with juvenile humor, but it works. The 27 spray painted penises mark the joke’s starting point, but it’s the witty dialogue that holds your attention. While much of that credit belongs to the writers, it’s the actors who deserve a special shoutout for their delivery and commitment.
American Vandal is the type of series that could be disregarded by everyone involved as a show with a stupid premise. Teenagers working on an investigative documentary about one student’s involvement in a graffiti scandal isn’t exactly Seinfeld. Still, every actor in the show treats their role as one of utmost importance. Their belief in the story they’re telling shines through from beginning to end.
The reason American Vandal works as well as it does is because the characters take the subject matter seriously. The documentary isn’t a school project or a way to get famous, but an evocative investigative piece of journalism they want to use a vehicle to get answers.
Here’s the other thing about American Vandal worth pointing out: It’s addicting. Viewers will quickly start scratching their heads and obsessing over theories. Like Westworld, Game of Thrones and Serial, American Vandal is a show that begs to be resolved before the final episode. Unfortunately, Netflix making every episode available at once removes some of the tension that comes with mysteries. Instead of being trapped in an anxious cloud of uncertainty, which I do enjoy from time to time with certain series, you’ll probably binge everything at once. I devoured each episode until the credits rolled on the finale and I was left feeling a little bit empty.
I didn’t have high hopes for American Vandal. I thought it looked stupid and considered passing over it entirely. Watching it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made as I haven’t been able to stop talking about it.
American Vandal will be available to stream on Sept. 15. I recommend trying to pace yourself, spacing out the episodes. Even if you choose to binge it, though, don’t sleep on this series. It very well may be Netflix’s next best original show.