Taking its cue from such popular true-crime series like podcast Serial and Netflix’s own Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx, docu-satire American Vandal takes aim at a high school prank that left 27 faculty cars vandalized with spray-painted penises. You’ may already be chuckling, but the scripted series from creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda (and producer Funny or Die) takes its subject matter very seriously, which makes it an even more brilliant spoof.
Set in Oceanside, California, the series tells the story of a Hanover High School senior found guilty of the crime and expelled, along with being on the hook for $100,000 for the cost of the damage to the vehicles. He insists, however, that he didn’t do it, so two enterprising students decide to make a documentary to figure out if the kid is telling the truth – and if he is, who did paint all those d–ks?
Here are seven ways American Vandal hilariously bends the true-crime docu-series genre on its ear.
Meet Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), the high-school senior who is accused and expelled for the spray-painting of said penises. The show expertly sets this kid up as the obvious suspect with hilarious effect: He’s a not-so-bright stoner who has a YouTube channel in which he and his friends, the Way Back Boys, play random pranks on people, à la Jackass, with stunts like “Baby Farting” and “Nuns Humping Trees.”
Dylan also has penchant for drawing male genitalia whenever and wherever he gets the chance, specifically when he is trying to irk his nemesis, the school’s Spanish teacher Ms. Shapiro (Karly Rothenberg), whose car was one of those included in the spray-painting scandal. All fingers point to Dylan – but Dylan steadfastly denies he did the deed.
You’re pretty much on Dylan’s side the entire time, because while he represents the requisite uneducated brute, there are also moments of clarity, and his emotional response to the “documentary,” especially when he realizes everyone thinks he’s such a dumbass, is a little heartbreaking.
Much like any of the other intrepid docu-series narrators, sophomore and aspiring filmmaker Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and his best friend, Sam (Griffin Gluck), just want the truth. They are both sort of Dylan’s friends, mostly because they all participate in the school’s mock news program “Morning Show,” through the AV club, so they see a chance to hone their skills as investigators to get to the bottom of it.
Peter and Sam start by dissecting Dylan’s shaky alibi, which includes his stoner friends and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Mackenzie (Camille Ramsey), while also analyzing the one really damning factor in Dylan’s case: There was an eyewitness who said he saw Dylan spray painting the cars.
As Peter and Sam’s investigation deepens — complete with a white board, photos, interviews, and lots of push pins and string — it becomes clear how wrapped up Peter gets to the case and how the outcome has lasting consequences for all those involved.
The student who says he saw Dylan is Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), a geeky senior who, as Peter uncovers, tends to exaggerate the truth in order to make himself look cool. Thing is, Alex did see someone vandalizing the cars, but whether it was actually Dylan or not is put into question.
This leads Peter and Sam to look at other potential suspects, narrowing it down to the nine students who work on the “Morning Show,” or as the series labels them, the “Morning Nine.” You see, a portion of the security video footage of the faculty parking lot during the time of the vandalism was erased, and the Morning Nine are the only ones who have access and the know-how to do that (well, maybe not Dylan).
Most of these nine have alibis (including Peter and Sam), save for a super nice Canadian kid named Ming, who Peter and Sam dismiss immediately because, as they state, “Dude, it’s Ming.” Still, the cracks begin to show with Morning Niner, senior class president Christa Carlyle (Genevieve Hannelius), along with Dylan’s girlfriend Mackenzie, who both eventually become serious people of interest. The plot thickens.
In those true-crime stories, there are those characters who have it in for the wrongly accused and want to see them punished, even if they didn’t do the crime. In this case, Dylan has continually gotten under the skin of Ms. Shapiro, one of the school’s most beloved and respected teachers. The d**k drawings, the class disruptions – Shapiro has had it with Dylan. So, when it’s speculated they don’t have a clear-cut suspect, the series suggests Shapiro and Vice Principal Keene (Matt Miller) orchestrated a coerced accusation from Trimboli in order to put it to rest sooner than later because, as they saw it, Dylan is the only logical choice. Ah, we know this scenario well.
The teachers in American Vandal are just as fully formed as the younger cast. Even with the exaggerations, the creators capture a kernel of truth to being a high-school teacher. Shapiro seems like your friend and mentor, until you cross her, and Keene is the kind of pompous school administrator we all know. There’s also Coach Rafferty (Sean Carrigan), who is an arrogant jock type, and history teacher Mr. Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan), who is the man-child that wants to be the cool teacher but ends up just being inappropriate most of the time. They are all spot-on.
Speaking of nailing it, centering this spoof in high school is a stroke of genius and ripe with rich scenarios. Much like Making a Murderer’s Wisconsin locale, there are so many stereotypes to draw from, but the series actually doesn’t go overplay its hand. Instead, the series’ paints a fairly accurate picture of what it’s like being in high school today.
The interviews Peter and Sam conduct throughout the course of the series give us a broader scope of these kids’ lives. For example, in order to discount Trimboli’s eyewitness account, the boys try to prove Trimboli also lied about his assertion that he once got a sexual favor from the school’s hottest girl, Sarah Pearson (Saxon Sharbino). But instead Peter and Sam end up exposing way more than they bargained for, hurting a few people in the process, including Sarah and Sam’s close friend (and secret crush) Gabi Granger (Camille Hyde). Peter and Sam also shine a spotlight on themselves, showing their naiveté in what they are actually doing, especially when they release their docu-series and it goes viral. It really makes for compelling stuff, beyond just the silliness of it all.
This is probably the most hilarious segment because this is really where the satire lies. Like we mentioned, Peter and Sam are very serious about this, putting together white boards to piece together all the evidence (hence the pushpins and string), and like podcast Serial, they delve deeply into the timeline of when these cars were vandalized with phallic images.
Based on the 29 minutes of security footage that had been erased (from 2:00–2:29 p.m.), the boys analyze Dylan’s alibi at that time. He said he left his friend’s house at around 2:00 to go see Mackenzie but came back to finish a prank they were doing to an old neighbor next door, leaving a voicemail on the man’s machine at 2:21 p.m. Peter and Sam’s attempts to get that voicemail message to exonerate Dylan sends you into stitches (along with the lie Dylan tells his friends on why he’s leaving to see Mack). The whole obsession with the timeline just hit the nail on the head.
The very best part of American Vandal, however, is how it keeps you going. Sure, the premise falls under the ridiculous, but you find yourself watching all eight episodes intently, trying to figure out if Dylan really did it or not, and if not, then who?
Like we mentioned, things about Mackenzie and Christa come to light, putting them higher up on the list of other suspects. They both revolve around Coach Rafferty (whose car was targeted), and let’s just say, one of the girls emerges as someone who could have easily done the deed. But the mystery isn’t completely solved at the end of Season 1.
What we’re left with is a docu-series with lingering questions, just like Serial and Making a Murderer, letting you draw your own conclusions about what happened and what should happen next: Should some of the teachers answer for the things they did? Will Peter and Sam gain more notoriety? Was Dylan’s life still ruined in the process? And finally, could there be a season 2? We sure hope so.
American Vandal is now streaming on Netflix.