“State your name and who you are,” says Peter (Tyler Alvarez) at the start of his documentary, American Vandal. “That’s a stupid question,” comes the reply. His subject? Dylan (Jimmy Tatro), high school troublemaker and academic non-achiever. So when 27 cars have penises spray-painted all over them, Dylan emerges as the obvious suspect. Not content with the school’s decision to expel him, Peter takes it upon himself to film a documentary about the whole thing. Social media tag: #whodrewthedicks.
Serial with scrotums. Making a Member. The Junkx. There’s no getting away from the fact that Netflix’s spoof of true crime documentaries is, at its heart, based on a dick joke. And that dick joke is extended for hours on end, waving it in your face with a cheeky, frat-boy grin. But if you’re turned off by the series’ trailer, or by the opening episode, persevere, because there’s more to American Scandal than penises – and what starts out as a satire soon emerges as its own thing entirely.
The problem with the show is that it’s not all that funny – and it’s clearly meant to be, in its deliberate juxtaposition of the kind of prestigious tone associated with Serial and co. with crude toilet humour (which, curiously, is closer to the sensationalism that goes with true crime’s tabloid-like origins than the lofty artistry that now defines the genre). The idea of satirising true crime documentaries is executed superbly, down to the opening credits and pensive music to the cold opens for every chapter and the way the show balances each drip-fed fact with a suitably daft cliffhanger. After the initial, sketch-like pilot, the series delves into the case with exactly the kind of attention to detail that has kept viewers gripped with more serious matters: there’s something brilliant in the way American Vandal begins to compare the dicks usually drawn by Dylan with the ones on the car and note the difference in hair patterns on the testicles. But there aren’t many laughs with such straight-faced imitation: Tony Yacenda’s direction is so good at apeing the thing he’s parodying that this essentially becomes a normal documentary investigation in its own right.
If that sounds like a failure, though, American Vandal is a success of another kind entirely: it’s less a spoof of true crime and more a satire of teen life. Because in trying to flesh out its world to support such in-depth faux-detective work, American Vandal has to construct a modern on-screen high school that rings with authenticity.
There are oodles of fantastic insights to be found within this festering sea of insecurities, which is as much about personal politics as it is about genitals. Alvarez’s Maldonado, we learn, is less concerned with justice and more about seizing an opportunity to be like the makers of Making a Murderer: he uploads his series on YouTube, trends on Twitter and even gets the attention of local news networks. What follows is a study of the ripples that such fame and exposure cause among teenagers and teachers, exposing adults having improper relationships with their pupils, scrutinising the ambition of smiling class president Christa (G Hannelius), and highlighting the perils of tarnished reputation upon Dylan’s own education and future prospects.
Underpinning that realism is a fantastically nuanced understanding of the way teens communicate – from Snapchat to Instagram (Facebook is so last generation), the evidence is built up from iPhone footage and other recording devices, all of which is filmed with a natural style. The dialogue, too, avoids the cliches and knowing quirks that can be found in so many teen screen portrayals: one incredibly accurate diversion sees the investigation analyse the connotations of using two ‘y’s when writing “Heyy” instead of “Hey” in a text message, which forms the crux of an argument about one student’s flirtatious behaviour.
Is all this amusing? No, but it’s strangely compelling, thanks to the way the script (co-written by Dan Perrault and Yacenda) strictly emulates a binge-worthy documentary’s pace, and it raises questions that are no less engaging due to their serious nature: Why don’t people trust a girl denying she had a sexual interaction with a geek? How far is too far when someone becomes driven solely by online popularity? And what exactly is the correct technique for spray-painting a penis?
In the end, the answer to the overall mystery proves typically ambiguous – because in the world of true crime, conclusions are rarely conclusive, steeped in controversy and influenced by bias. But it’s also extremely apt for a pseudo-teen drama, in which all the suspects aren’t even sure of themselves, let alone the facts. Halfway through, Dylan streams back the documentary at a house party for everyone to enjoy seeing themselves on camera – a meta flourish of self-reflection that captures the complex dynamics of identity and teen life in a single scene. The result recalls (the much funnier) Search Party in the way a search for the truth is stumped by the impenetrable nature of teenage existence. His persona deconstructed and reassembled with forensic precision, Dylan sits down in front of the camera. “State your name and who you are,” Pete asks, in the artificial way that all true crime documentary presenters do. “That’s a stupid question,” comes the reply. He’s right: it is.
American Vandal is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.