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American Vandal - Peter and Sam hold a camcorder on a couch
Peter (left) and Sam in American Vandal’s second season.

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American Vandal season 2 is a gross, funny, poignant look at teens’ performative lives

More sophomoric goofs are sacrificed for honesty in an incredible second season

American Vandal’s second season is a tale of loneliness.

It’s not as funny as its first season, which centered on a lovable goon, Dylan, who was framed for spray-painting dicks on teachers’ cars. That doesn’t matter. American Vandal replaces easy-to-make goofs and obvious jokes with a story about teenage isolation, inescapable modernity and a primal need for connection. It’s never accusatory or judgmental; this isn’t a story about technology’s negative effect on tomorrow’s generation written by flabbergasted thirty-somethings. It’s a genuine confessional about the exhaustion that accompanies living two separate lives — one that offers messy fulfillment and another that projects an imagined happiness.

It’s an entire season defined by the following line:

“You know, Peter [and] Sam … I really mean this: I hope we keep in touch on social. Or, you know, in real life.”

In season two, teenage, wunderkind detectives Peter and Sam are invited to solve a disturbing prank rampage occurring at a Washington high school. There aren’t any dicks involved this time. Instead it’s a poop scandal, a series of stinky crimes being committed at the hands of a mysterious figure known as the “Turd Burglar.” Their investigation takes them into different pockets of the school’s population, from the basketball team’s best players to the oddball, tormented misfits. There are echoes of John Hughes’ ’80s films, but while their stories are as vitally honest as they were in The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink, they’re not as exaggerated.

American Vandal season 2 - Sam and Peter wearing headphones
Sam (left) and Peter investigating a crime.
Scott Patrick Green/Netflix

What separates American Vandal from The Breakfast Club is its account of modern American teenage living: an undeterred, impressively realistic take on how a technology just over a decade old has forever changed how people think, learn, love, grieve, hate and identify with each other.

This season’s investigation puts students under a microscope so we can see them grapple with a form of teenagehood foreign to generations before them. They’re not just wrestling with acne, crushes, hook-ups, fights with friends, academic struggles, sports, part-time jobs and a standard, debilitating teenage angst; they’re also constantly performative. One potential suspect’s Instagram account gets the Mean Girls treatment, where everyone is commenting on it, and everyone vocalizes their opinion. Their Instagram account becomes a substitute for the real person; they are their account.

In 2018, it’s not enough to just exist anymore. There’s an emphasis on attaining and maintaining a certain clout, reiterating a projected version of perfection. Real life isn’t as important as the one in the cloud; the former feels temporary in the moment, while the latter feels like documented fact. Instagram proves people were at that party; Twitter feeds an incessant need to be instantly heard and rewarded with immediate response; YouTube is a way to get your thoughts across to people who might ignore you otherwise; Tumblr is a way to build up a status as an internet savant. In American Vandal, Instagram videos are a way to document who wound up at the coolest party in school and who didn’t. Hours are pored over who was there — who’s who.

American Vandal - video of Chloe
Chloe in American Vandal’s second season.

American Vandal season two digs into the deeply choreographed online presence of its suspects, peeling away each faux layer until they can confront the real person sitting behind the screen, thumbs quickly typing quirky captions they’ve stolen from a Google search. Moments like Peter and Sam having an honest conversation with a fellow 16-year-old kid about the exhaustion of being judged, and living up to pre-conceived, unrealistic standards, are when the show finds its moments of brilliance.

The crime committed in American Vandal’s second season is one born out of a complete lack of empathy — a retaliation against caricatures the culprit only knows through Instagram photos and Twitter videos, against a supposed happiness that the suspect can’t believe in because other people’s happiness is unfair when they’re living with depressive thoughts in isolation. It’s an unrelenting thought process of crying out over how unfair it is that everyone else is happier.

But no one’s really happier. Everyone is searching for something that will make them feel like the person they project to the world. It’s a tale of doing unspeakable things in hopes that maybe, just maybe, one person will see past the forced smile on Instagram and say, “I see you, I hear you, and I love you.”

American Vandal - The Turd Burglar’s card
The Turd Burglar’s card in American Vandal.

American Vandal presents the most honest conversation about being a teenager in a constantly connected, competitive and confusing world. The result of that are mostly sad teenagers; every 16-year-old in the series — the jock, the loner, the theater kid, the rich girl, the geek— is broken. It’s also hopeful in spurts and, by the end of the season, everyone gets the connection they need through Peter and Sam’s digging.

Their investigation solves the crime, but it also accomplishes a far more important, unspoken task: giving a group of sad kids, who hide behind their online personas, a chance to be vulnerable, and talk openly about their thoughts without performing for or worrying about a faceless audience. After years of yelling in the wind on the internet, these teens finally got someone to listen.

American Vandal season 2 premieres on Netflix on Sept. 14.

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