American Vandal was, to me, the most unexpected emotional punch of the year.
Yes, I’m referring to the Netflix series parody of America’s obsession with crime, in the same vain as Making a Murderer, The Keepers or even Scandal… blown up to a four-hour-long dick joke.
That’s right, the Netflix-dick-joke series has more sincerity than most serious, prestige dramas. It delves into obsession, classism, depression, gender politics, race… and it does so effortlessly, while never forgetting why it’s there in the first place: To be funny.
The series chronicles the possibly-wrongful expulsion of known-dumbass Dylan Maxwell from an Oceanside, CA high school after he is blamed for spray-painting 27 phalluses on 27 cars in the teachers’ parking lot. Was Dylan railroaded by the school’s administration because of his past antics that also included drawing dicks on whiteboards? Or is everyone right about him?
Eight episodes construct, tear down, and reconstruct the case against him. The key witness against Dylan had lied in the past for attention, including being friends with someone who died, to garner sympathy for himself… as well as an infamous handjob no one can account for (the series has a hilarious digital re-enactment for the alleged incident). The witness is also, most infamously known for being “a little bitch.” The mocku-series defines a little bitch as someone who’s not above lying in order to get what they want.
Then there’s the surveillance camera’s deleted footage at the time of the “dick-painting” incident. According to Dylan, he’s too stupid to know how to do that… which one of the makers of the series describes as being the smartest thing Dylan has ever said, to point to his own stupidity as a potential alibi.
Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund race against time to prove Dylan’s innocence–or guilt, as Peter says that “the truth” is what he’s most concerned with–before his criminal trial begins, with $100,000 in damages against him. The outcome of the trial could potentially ruin his life.
All of this is handled absolutely straight-faced, which makes it all the better. The series is hilarious. But as it goes along, it actually begins to get interesting and in unexpected ways. Peter’s obsession with the outcome begins to cloud his judgment. He’s no longer objectively looking at facts, he’s a part of the storm surrounding the case. He begins to view subjects not as people, but as clues and as evidence, giving little care to what he decides to put in the documentary and how it might actually affect someone.
As the series goes on, hell, even Dylan, the dumbass pot-smoking prankster becomes more and more interesting. When he actually begins to watch the series about himself and sees how people view him, as a joke, he tailspins into a depression. Nothing in his life is going right and it’s hard to tell what he is and what he’s not responsible for. All he knows is that it’s not what he wants to be.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into many of the actual reveals, because the charm of American Vandal is in seeing how much thought actually went into constructing the timeline. With Dylan’s alibi of using a toilet at an antique store to take a dump because he doesn’t like his friend’s squishy toilet seat (because it feels like sitting on someone else’s butt and pooping into their butthole), yeah, it’s a “poop joke” but it’s also a great defining character moment. Some of the best stupid humor takes a lot of intelligence to pull off correctly and American Vandal is a prime example of that.
My favorite thing about American Vandal was in the portrayal of a lot of the high school kids. They actually seemed like real people, as opposed to actors playing a role, which is how I feel about 90% of high-school-set stories. In this, they actually look like kids, too. They don’t look like 30-year-old models wearing fake braces and bad wigs. The brilliance in casting is a big part of what sells the documentarian realness of the series.
American Vandal is worth a look because, yes, it’s very, very funny. You will laugh out loud. But it’s also, somehow, more than that, and that’s what makes it so damned surprising. A show about dicks, weed and poop is, somehow, one of my favorite things I’ve seen all year. An instant classic.