A Compelling Mockumentary With a Whole Lotta Dick

American Vandal: Season 1

If you've browsed through this site one thing you might have noticed is that among all my reviews I don't cover any documentaries. There are plenty of DVDs in me collection, tons of hours of documentary footage I could watch and review, not to mention all the various documentaries I could find on Netflix, Hulu, and the like. I don't because, by and large, the format bores me.

Due to that fact I've also missed a lot of the "true crime" serial shows that have cropped up (like Making a Murderer, a Netflix series). It's also the reason why, for the longest time, I held off on watching American Vandal, a "true crime" mockumentary parodying the genre. I actually do like mockumentaries, but in this particular case I felt like since I didn't watch the "real" shows I wouldn't be able to properly appreciated Vandal. However, the new season just dropped on Netflix, has been getting a lot of good buzz, and seems amusing enough. So this last week I sat down to watch the first season and catch up on the show.

And yeah, I can see why everyone enjoys this show so much. Season one of American Vandal follows the case of Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a burn-out high school student with a penchant for acting out in class (like an over-the-top class clown). Known around school for his love of drawing dicks wherever he can (to get attention of course), Dylan suddenly becomes the prime suspect when a mysterious someone goes through the teacher's parking lot, spray painting 27 dicks on the various cars there. The case seems open-and-shut, so the school expels Dylan. Facing a lack of a high school degree, no prospects for college, and potential criminal charges for the $100,000 in damages the vandal racked up, Dylan needs a miracle to clear his name.

Enter Pete Moldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), two A.V. kids from the high school. The two of them think there's something fishy about the whole case against Dylan, so they start digging. What they turn up is a lot of conflicting stories, evidence that points both at Dylan as well as other people, and a case that gets more twisty the further they dig. it leads them to ask the hard-hitting question: "Who did the dicks?"

As a parody of these true-crime serials, American Vandal, of course, follows the same formula of the other, real cases. We start with an introduction to the crime, as well as the accused and (because he's expelled) convicted lead suspect. The series then goes out of it's way to give us all the tropes we'd expect from a show such as this: suspect lineups, witness interviews, crime-scene reconstructions. It's all done to give the series a true sense of fitting within the genre, to be of a piece with the harder-hitting shows.

Of course, the joke is that instead of murder the case we're following is 27 spray painted dicks. Thus, the crime scene reconstructions involve 3D models with little spray-painted penises on all of them, or a reconstruction of a story of a kid getting a hand-job (for background to prove if he's a serial liar). It's all goofy and dumb and not the subject matter of a real show like this, which only heightens the humor of it. Everyone on the show takes the case so seriously even though it's about 27 spray painted dicks.

That said, the show does do a good job of balancing the humor of the scenario (and many of the subtle jokes littered through the series) with actual stakes for the characters. Dylan is a screw-up, sure, but you can tell there's a heart to the guy. As much as he may play mean-spirited pranks on people, you get the feeling like he doesn't really understand why his normal behavior (and his stunts) are bad. He wants to be a decent guy, but he just doesn't know what that means. As much as you don't think he should be allowed to grown up to be a state senator, or a doctor, or ever be allowed to take care of children, you certainly don't want to see his entire life get ruined over a crime he didn't commit.

I appreciated all the performances in the show. Certainly, the weight of the series rests on Alvarez and Gluck, and they rise the challenge admirably. Remember, they have to be able to get into serious detective mode, to sell the "reality" of this "heinous crime", all with a straight face, while talking about goofy and dumb subject matter. They can handle the early half of the show where the jokes are flying, and then in the late game when the stakes are increased further and the show settles in to truly finding the culprit, the actors take on the subject matter with aplomb.

It's not just the leads that sell their characters though. The cast is uniformly good, from the rest of the A.V. club, to Dylan's stoner friends, and the teachers on campus. The two other standouts, though, are Dylan and his girlfriend Mackenzie (Camille Ramsey). Especially in the late game, these two give strong, heartfelt performances. Mackenzie especially has some really strong material -- there's a scene near the end where she slowly breaks down on camera and it's an absolute stunner of a performance.

All around, American Vandal delivers a solid story in its first season it. It lures you in with a dopey subject, spray-painted penises, and then slowly sucks you in not only with good jokes but with characters you can care about. Then, when the show turns dramatic, you're hooked on the characters and want to see what happens next. It's a neat trick, and a solid twist, one that stands up to all the little twists throughout the first season. it's a series I expected to enjoy as a bit of a lark, but what I found, instead, was a truly compelling season of television (with a whole lot of dicks).

And now I have to get back to my television so I can watch season two. This one is all about laxative-tainted lemonade and a whole lot of poop. So yeah, it looks like this series is keeping one foot right in the goofy subject matter, just as you'd expect.