Netflix has had success with an amazing variety of different TV genres — comedy, drama, animation, baking competitions, stand-up comedy specials, to mention just a few — and the streaming platform has proven they are unafraid to push the envelope with their entertainment, which is probably why people are so taken with their content.
“American Vandal,” though, may very well be one of Netflix’s crown creative jewels. The mockumentary, which is not unlike “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation,” is at once dramatic, hilarious and absolutely absurd.
The first season introduces Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), two high school students dedicated to unraveling the school’s big mystery: who spray painted 27 dicks on 27 teachers’ cars? Well, actually, according to the school, it isn’t a mystery. It was senior Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), the notorious slacker and wannabe class clown. When the series starts, Dylan has already been expelled and is preparing for his trial. But Maxwell claims he’s innocent and, whether they believe him or not, Maldonado and Ecklund decide to make a documentary that further explores the case.
The show is an anthology of sorts, meaning the second season, released Sept. 14, presents a new storyline, and it is even more extreme. After Maldonado and Ecklund posted their documentary online, it gained traction and became so popular that Netflix picked it up (very meta and definitely fictional). High school students across the country emailed the duo with mysteries from their own schools, trying to get their attention for their next documentary. What finally caught their eye was the case of the Turd Burglar.
The Turd Burglar was responsible for three really crappy incidents at an affluent private school. The first and most dramatic incident was that of The Brownout. Someone spiked the school’s beloved lemonade with laxatives and nearly every student at the school pooped their pants. Publicly. Very few people were lucky enough to score a bathroom stall, so teenagers were trying to find trash cans to squat in, but most just let it all go in the hallways or the cafeteria. The school outcast, Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), confessed to the crime, but soon begins to change his story. Maldonado and Ecklund take it upon themselves to discover the truth.
Both premises sound ridiculous, right? They are. The series is riddled with penis and poop jokes and unusual evidence (ball hairs play a weirdly important role in determining if Maxwell is really guilty). Yet, “American Vandal” is surprisingly insightful and the writing is sharp.
One aspect that makes the series unexpectedly intelligent is the mystery. At the beginning of both seasons there is an element of “Are they really innocent?” As the episodes unfurl, new clues are constantly revealed, different characters are put under the microscope and the stakes get higher. The show does an excellent job of misleading viewers and making them question every theory they have. That, and some of the revelations about the case and the questions that Maldonado and Ecklund have to explore are downright outlandish. Each episode seems like it should be utter nonsense, but somehow it all comes together and makes perfect sense. Somehow, it all leads to a conclusion you never see coming.
What makes “American Vandal” even more brilliant is the keen look it offers of humanity. The show examines the high school setting. Why are certain students treated in certain ways? What would make a teenager commit such dastardly acts? Is there corruption among the faculty? The series breaks down high school stereotypes and initial misconceptions. All of a sudden, high school is a complicated landscape with more depth than the typical cliques and bullies.
However, the show provides insight on a larger scale, too. Both seasons are tied together with a message about society that immediately gives the show more depth. “American Vandal” comments on how people cater to their own preconceived notions and how younger generations have begun to turn to technology in order to gain a sense of connection.
Of course, the show is also smart in that it is engaging and the jokes are funny and perfectly placed. On its surface, “American Vandal” is a ridiculous show dedicated to potty humor, but at its core, the series contains a shocking amount of depth and insight. Which is kind of what the show is all about. The series is creative, unique and fun and you will be thankful you watched it.