“We’re the first generation that gets to live twice. Our existences are simultaneously experienced and curated.”
That’s the sound of Netflix’s American Vandal returning for a second season. The true crime spoof was an unexpected hit in 2017 (read our review here), when it introduced us to Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, two teen documentarians who decided to go all Making a Murderer on a high school incident involving some spray paint and a lot of penises on some cars. The crude nature of the scandal wasn’t as funny as it thought it was, but the show emerged as a surprisingly astute and honest exploration of the way kids communicate in the modern age, through Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram rather than phone calls or, you know, actual conversations in person. Season 2 doubles down on that, turning the plot device into explicit subject matter, and the result is a sharp, funny, smartly nuanced comedy that deftly depicts the reality of growing up in a post-Facebook world.
The crime this time? The Brownout, a pant-squirming attack in a Washington high school, which sees the canteen’s lemonade poisoned with laxative, sending every thirsty student into embarrassed squats across the cafeteria and corridors. Catching it all on video? “The Turd Burglar”, an anonymous terror with a social media account. But who is this bottom-fixated bully? Enter Peter and Sam, who have become minor celebrities after American Vandal’s popular first season and are invited to the school to investigate by Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), the outsider who’s become the main suspect for the stinky stunt.
It’s a neat device, one that enables American Vandal to continue its faux-documentary format while changing up the situation and freshening up its surprises. It also means that the show has to think more about what it’s doing to avoid repeating itself, which brings added clarity to its satire and added quality to its style.
“You think poop is funny?” demands one school staff member when interrogating Kevin. The Turd Burglar is an altogether funnier starting point for this season, pushing good taste to the extreme while simultaneously inspiring sympathy for his/her soiled victims – there’s surely nothing more humiliating in life than dirtying your undies, particularly on camera. Best of all, the Burglar keeps threatening to strike again – we see not only the lemonade spiking, but also a shower of the S-word from t-shirt cannons at a basketball game.
That against-the-clock element helps to bring the show more in line with the more sensationalist true crime docs out there – and, at the same time, ramps up the tension in its own right. It also introduces a new figure to the story: DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), star B-ball player and the most popular kid in that year’s class. Both Tillman and McClain are superbly created characters, just rounded and complex enough to be more than comic caricatures, and it’s their behaviour and dilemmas that build upon the show’s nuanced portrayal of teen life. McClain is the kind of outsider who says he’s happy to be one, but in a way that may or may not be genuine – he’s filmed air-chopping fruit that’s thrown at him in the corridor (“Fruit ninja!”) and posts videos of himself drinking loose leaf tea, slurping so as to get the maximum flavour. Tillman, meanwhile, is no less intriguing, displaying a youthful arrogance that barely covers an insecurity complex, as he proclaims himself a friend of everyone he passes in the hall, but also craves someone to see him for who he really is.
That idea of dual identities, of personalities polished for public consumption, is deftly woven into the season’s central conceit: catfishing is part of everyday reality for these characters. And the show’s ability to sharpen its focus is matched by its equally precise presentation, which just gets better with every episode: each event is repeated in monochrome close-ups, turds being sprayed out over crowds and corridors in slow-motion, while teasing glimpses of background details hint at crimes to come and lies already told. With the overly sober music, the now-familiar high school interviewers, and a neat ability to show “candid” footage of interview subjects before and after questions makes it a compelling mystery in its own right, let alone a shrewdly observed comedy.
The result is a fantastic step up from American Vandal’s first season, one that carefully skewers the muck everyone hides in their online profiles, dumping revelations all over their pristine virtual appearances. The show is funnier, more thoughtful and more surprising than its maiden outing, culminating in a typically subtle commentary on the nature of our social media society. Are we a civilisation where everyone lies all the time? Or one where everyone invades each other’s privacy and truth all the time?
“We’re not the worst generation, we’re just the most exposed,” says Kevin at one point, in an emphatic defence of the often-slated Millennial generation. “We’re living in a constant loop of feedback and judgement.” Social media, he argues, isn’t about deceit, but about providing a “thin layer of protection” a protected place to “grow, discover and reinvent”. The season’s final moments unfortunately try to simplify that ambiguous stance into the kind of real-life-is-what-matters philosophy you’d expect from a grown-up, but take a leaf from its subjects and curate the bits of the message you want to hear and this is a satire that matches sincerity with snark and personal insight with poop. Compare it to Channel 4’s The Circle, which tries to explore similar territory but through the more tired format of reality TV, and you appreciate just how savvy and unique American Vandal is. Cut the crap and there isn’t another TV show out there right now like it.
American Vandal Season 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.