One of the most intriguing things about comedy is its ability to to sneak intelligent thoughts and commentary behind admittedly and purposeful dumb jokes. There is a strict balance you have to hit to make it work, but when it it is done correctly it shocks the audience into awareness and you can watch their eyes as they begin to reprocess and re-contextualize what they have seen and heard and knowing smiles form across their faces. This brings us to the subject of American Vandal, a series that is an eight half-hour episode dick joke, and also one of the smartest things I’ve seen all year.
This Netflix mockumentary series which dropped September 15th is produced by 3 Arts Entertainment, CBS Studios, and Funny or Die with show creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault acting as executive producers/writers. The series follows a trio of students down the winding path of deceit and corruption as they investigate who painted dicks on all the cars in the the teacher’s parking lot of a California high school. Can’t believe something this ridiculous could exist, check the trailer:
The premise of the show is obviously silly, but silly is not the same as stupid and while some of the characters on the show are far from the cream of the crop in the brains department, American Vandal is far from stupid.
The titular vandal is one Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a kid more focused on being the class clown and pulling and low-brow pranks with his friends and posting them to YouTube then his studies or anything else in his life, save the possible exception of his girlfriend, Mackenzie (Camille Ramsey). Dylan has a history of issues with teachers and is known across school for his constant drawing of penises on everything. Dylan has been kicked out of school and is facing felony charges yet maintains his innocence, but this doesn’t count for much as he is a habitual liar.
Enter one Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), a wannabe filmmaker and member of the high-school news team. Peter doesn’t even like Dylan, but seeing how popular true crime series have become in the past few years and can’t help but be opportunist and start a web series taking a deeper look at the case against Dylan. Peter isn’t unsympathetic and does have a passion for the truth, but is clear that he is using Dylan’s dilemma for his own ends.
What follows is a comedic and unapologetic look at social striation, sexual politics, the illusion of privacy in the era of social media, systemic corruption, censorship, the price of celebrity, and everyday high-school life. The show even tackles the nature of truth, and if sometimes it is better to believe a lie. I am of the honest opinion that parents with teenage kids can and will find value in exposing their kids to this show and watching it with them. This isn’t some after-school special nonsense where the viewer is beaten over the head with whatever message the creators are trying to make, it just shows the good and the bad of what happens and leaves it for the viewer to decide what is ultimately right. Any time you can entertain kids and get them to think while not talking down to them in any way is a win in my book. Do understand that you don’t need to have a teenage kid, or even have been one in the last decade or so, this truly is a show for the young and old alike.
The series’ focus is finding the the truth behind Dylan’s guilt or innocence and how this ordeal has impacted him, but for me, the journey of Peter is the most interesting. Peter goes from a kid with some weak leads to an advocate of the truth, fighter of censorship, and a pretty good investigative journalist. Peter shows us the journey he takes, warts and all. This investigation negatively impacts several innocent parties and instead of ignoring his own mistakes in how he investigated and presented the material, he makes a point to stop and address those issues with the new found understanding this endeavor has granted him. He gains level of maturity well beyond his years and shows a level of honesty we all should aspire to.
The best thing about the show is it knows when not to tell a joke. Sure the series is meant to be be funny (and it is), but especially later in the series the humor will take a backseat for a bit as the emotional reality of what is happening to the characters takes center stage. This would be the death nail for any lesser show, but by the time it happend I welcomed it because I was so invested and it was backed by some really fine acting. The show takes a nonsense premise littered with a slew of dick jokes and cartoon dick imagery and makes it you give a damn about what’s going on, if that isn’t enough of a reason to watch the show I don’t know what is.
There is already talk of another season of American Vandal, possibly covering another smaller crime with a different set of characters. While this does have potential, I’m wary of this as I don’t think this show is a stunt you can pull twice as the audience will be savvy going in and it may lessen the work that the show has already done. To me, these eight episodes should stand alone with the only acceptable follow-up a quick “where are they now” special covering the aftermath of the series after a few years and then maybe, just maybe, if they have a good enough idea, have Peter in a new series investigate another crime with some of the cast returning in supporting roles. American Vandal is as clever as it looks stupid and is well worth your attention.