American Vandal season 2 review: With a story about poop, Netflix mockumentary shows its heart
It's among the odder facts of our time that a TV show about d*ck graffiti and poop (American Vandal in its first and second seasons, respectively) has one of the strongest emotional cores of recent pop culture offerings.
It's among the odder facts of our time that a TV show about dick graffiti and poop (in its first and second seasons, respectively) has one of the strongest emotional cores of recent pop culture offerings.
American Vandal on Netflix presents itself as a mockumentary — two high school students investigate a mystery as part of their film club assignment — but its impact is anything but laughable.
In season 1, which premiered last year, we saw these students — Peter Maldonado (played by Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) — look into whether or not their school's expulsion of a senior, for allegedly spray painting 27 dicks on the faculty's cars, was justified. The expelled student, Dylan Maxwell, has the reputation of being a troublemaker; he refutes the school's charges though, and says he has an alibi for the time the vandalism occurred.
Peter and Sam tackle the investigation with all the seriousness of any true crime procedural, including such staples as a "detective's crazy wall" (those cork boards with photos of suspects pinned on, and strings of thread tying all the clues, facts and evidence together), "serious" on-camera interviews with all the involved parties, "reconstructions" of the crime itself etc. As high school students, their investigation also relies heavily on "found footage" — posts and videos uploaded by their schoolmates to YouTube, Instagram and other social media.
It wasn't just in inhabiting its idiom that American Vandal was clever; it carried through its conceit even in the show's opening credits. So Sam and Peter (fictional characters) are credited as the creators of American Vandal, the teacher in charge of the film club is named as the producer. At the start of season 2, which sees Sam and Peter tackle a new case, the boys talk about how much "their lives have changed after their documentary was released in 2017": Netflix stepped in to give American Vandal a wide release and helped upgrade their production quality, then they were inundated with requests to investigate other acts of vandalism after their successful debut. It's all very meta, and self-aware — and hilarious.
Beyond the hilarity, however, American Vandal has a purpose. Season 1 may have started with a "class clown" and his penchant for drawing dicks; what it ended as, was a compelling portrait of high school life: its cliques and casual cruelties, the social isolation.
Season 2 goes further.
I must say, in the initial few episodes of this new season — which premiered on Netflix on 14 September — I wondered if American Vandal had lost its touch. That the show didn't take itself seriously was among its winning qualities; in season 2, Sam and Peter are so earnest that it almost seems like American Vandal has gone down the same route as the plethora of true crime shows it skewers. But not for long. The season rights itself soon enough, and your concerns turn out to have been unwarranted.
This time, the case Sam and Peter have been asked to investigate involves poop.
During a seemingly normal lunch hour at the uber-exclusive St. Bernadine High School, the vast majority of the student population is struck by a severe attack of diarrhoea. As the toilets fill up, the desperate students poop wherever they stand: in the hallways, in the cafeteria, in trash cans. A day after the incident, which the students call "The Brownout", their videos and photos are uploaded on social media by someone called "The Turd Burglar". The authorities find that the diarrhoea was caused not by food poisoning, but by the liberal addition of laxatives to the lemonade dispensed with lunch.
Two other incidents follow in quick succession: During "Kurt Vonnegut Day" in English class, a poop-filled piñata (the piñata is in the shape of Vonnegut's head — some very literal symbolism there) bursts; at a pep rally in the gym, the cheerleaders fire the usual t-shirt launchers into the crowd — only to release a fine shower of dried cat sh*t. "The Turd Burglar" claims responsibility for both these events as well.
Under pressure from parents and the local community, St. Bernadine steps up its investigations. Finally, a student — Kevin McClane — is named as the Turd Burglar on the basis of a tip-off and some circumstantial evidence. Questioned for several hours, Kevin "confesses".
Sam and Peter, however, realise that there's plenty amiss with the school's investigation. Is Kevin really the Turd Burglar or was his confession coerced?
Over the course of a painstaking investigation, Sam and Peter discover there's more going on at St. Bernadine than a possibly potty vandal on the loose. A complex web of cover-ups by the school authorities, a system of privilege that lets star athletes go unpunished for virtually any infraction, cyber bullying and harassment that spills over offline (and vice versa) — Sam and Peter must wade through deep sh*t if they hope to unmask the true Turd Burglar.
The ludicrous premise builds into a scathing commentary on modern life, the use of social media, and our essential loneliness in a digitally connected age. An insight into why someone might want to prove his/her peers are "full of sh*t". It is also a devastating critique of 'catfishing' — luring someone into a romantic relationship online with the use of a deceptive/fake persona.
A recent Quartz Obsessions analysis on catfishing noted that 15 percent of Americans were on mobile dating apps as of 2016; of this number, 27 percent users were in the 18-24 age group. "Romance scams" (such as catfishing) had led to $230 million in estimated losses to victims of such frauds.
American Vandal season 2 goes beyond these number to look at what happens to those who are catfished — blackmail, heartbreak, personal information being leaked. It's certainly not a far-fetched scenario, as the real life case of American linebacker Manti Te'o (who was the victim of a years-long catfish) revealed.
American Vandal's strong stand is especially welcome in light of how another Netflix offering — the teen romance Sierra Burgess Is A Loser — absolutely negated the consequences of catfishing (for the perpetrators and the person deceived). If Sierra Burgess Is A Loser presents catfishing as a sort of meet-cute for its romantic leads (Noah Centineo and Shannon Purser), then American Vandal shows it for what it is: a particularly soul-crushing crime.
Unsparing as American Vandal is in its satire, it is as sympathetic with its characters. As with season 1, season 2 also evokes real empathy for the people who make up the story, while highlighting how our expectations of others' behaviour (and our resultant attitudes towards them) sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies. It is in its championing of the 'underdog' that American Vandal shows its heart. And to think it does this with a story about dicks, and poop.
American Vandal season 2 is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
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