Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Spoiler Alert: This contains spoilers for seasons one and two of American Vandal.
American Vandal, with two seasons now streaming on Netflix, is an easy show to dismiss. It’s a high school set, true-crime documentary spoof whose first season was marketed under the hashtag #WhoDrewtheDicks and whose second season revolves around the mystery of the “Turd Burglar”, and you wouldn’t expect much from it. You’d expect some crude humor, a few fun camera tricks, and maybe a little commentary on our fascination with true crime, but nothing more. Even though both seasons have received near universal critical acclaim, an Emmy nomination for writing, and a Peabody award, most people still write it off as, “the show about dicks.” And that’s okay.
American Vandal is all about the ways we perceive each other and, more importantly, the ways we misunderstand each other. Season one revolves around Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro, doing absolutely stunning work), senior prankster and notorious dumb stoner at Hanover High School, after he’s been expelled for a massive dick-drawing vandalism he claims he didn’t commit. Through the course of the eight episodes, more of Dylan is revealed. The audience, both the Netflix viewers and the in-universe participants in the documentary, learn more about Dylan than they’d ever had the chance to before. They’re confronted with the ways their initial perceptions were wrong: Dylan cares deeply for his longtime girlfriend Mackenzie (Camille Ramsey), he feels real pain and loss over his expulsion, he takes documentarian Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) in as a real friend, and, most importantly, he really didn’t draw the dicks.
But they’re also confronted with the ways their initial perceptions were right: after all, Dylan makes YouTube videos such as, “Baby Farting,” routinely draws dicks on his Spanish teacher’s whiteboard, and his alibi for the vandalism is pranking his best friend’s elderly neighbor. He is the notorious prankster and dumb stoner everyone thought he was. The most emotional moment of the first season comes after Dylan has been exonerated and reinstated at Hanover High. Finding that little has changed, that people still see him as a stupid troublemaker, he spray paints a dick on the driveway of his Spanish teacher. Peter confronts him and Dylan breaks down, just a little. Why not be exactly what they say he is? Nothing was going to get better. He’d already been assigned a role, a label, a character in all of their lives, so why not just play along?
This theme is extended and explored in new ways in season two. Now set at St. Bernardine Catholic School in Washington, deliberately odd kid Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) has already been expelled and indicted for the poop-related crimes of the Turd Burglar when Peter arrives. But Kevin isn’t his main suspect; star basketball player DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg) is. Introduced as the self-assured, above the law, Golden Boy of St. Bernadine, DeMarcus’ life is put under a microscope for most of American Vandal’s sophomore season. What would be his motive for covering the school in feces if he’s so welcomed and loved? Just how far above everyone else does he think he is? Is DeMarcus even smart enough to pull of this sort of crime?
In contrast to the way he treats Dylan in the first season, Peter seems content to accept that what he sees of DeMarcus is all there is. He’s nothing more than an incredible basketball player, a little too dumb for his own good, and totally untouchable. His working theory until the final few episodes is that DeMarcus became the Turd Burglar as an elaborate prank, just because he knew he could get away with it. This makes the truth, that DeMarcus being untouchable was so lonely he fell victim to a catfish that blackmailed him into putting poop into a piñata, so much more painful.
There are undeniable parallels between DeMarcus and Dylan’s confession scenes: the low, orange-tinted lighting. The physical closeness to Peter. Their caved-in posture while curled up against a wall. The camera at an awkward distance and angle. And the boys make similar statements: they felt trapped and isolated by everyone’s perception of them. Dylan, cornered into his role as a perpetually stoned class clown, and DeMarcus, made lonely by his school’s idolization of him, both do desperate things because they think that’s all there is. The expectations of their friend and their schools have given them no other options, so they live up to the show’s title.
Now if American Vandal left things there, it would still be an impactful message. People become what you perceive them to be, even though we all know there’s more to them. Expectations are a powerful thing. Good and bad, they shape us. And every vandal is just a lost, lonely soul crying out for love and attention. But that’s not where either story ends.
Each season of American Vandal closes with a final voiceover from Peter, just as most trust crime documentaries do, in order to wrap up the mystery and summarize what we’ve learned. In the first season, Peter urges us to examine our own biases, to examine our own perceptions, and not jump to conclusions. That’s how people get hurt. In the second, much more social media heavy season, he points out a paradox. Yes, the personas we adopt online are fake and they are walls that separate us. But those walls aren’t always bad; there’s something to be gained from keeping the real you a little protected while you figure things out.
It’s hard not to apply these exact messages to the show’s marketing. The social media persona of American Vandal certainly acts as a wall. Sure, the show thrives on crude jokes based on the childishness of the central crimes, but that’s not all there is to it. The insights into human nature, especially the nature of Generation Z (or whatever we’re calling it), is absent from all promotional materials. The logo for the second season is a poop emoji with eyes, for God’s sake. The emotional, compassionate, tear-inducing side of American Vandal is hidden from the public just as Dylan Maxwell and DeMarcus Tillman hide their pain and loneliness from their schools.
But there’s value in that. If American Vandal marketed itself as a show unflinchingly examining the emotions of teenagers, these moments of inner depth wouldn’t come as such a surprise and would lose some of their punch. They might even seem preachy or shallow. Like Peter says, it’s okay to protect yourself so that you’re allowed to make mistakes. American Vandal hasn’t hit a wrong note yet, but if it did, the fact that you only go in expecting a silly, dick-and-poop joke mockumentary acts as a sort of safety net. And it makes the emotional core that’s revealed when all the jokes, all the expectations, all the walls are stripped away even more of a treasure. Because you realize it was there all along.
It’s tempting to argue that American Vandal should be a mainstream hit in the vein of mockumentaries that came before it like Parks and Recreation or The Office. It’s a show that has something for most everyone and it’s ridiculously bingeable. But its status as a hidden gem allows American Vandal to embody the messages at the heart of its two stories. Like Dylan Maxwell and DeMarcus Tillman, only some people will get to see the inner softness of American Vandal and only after putting in time with the outer ridiculousness of it.
Most people won’t ever see more than the dick jokes or the recreated diarrhea footage or Dylan slamming his face into a loaf of bread or whatever the hell Kevin McClain is doing in that newsboy hat. And that’s okay. Those are all still integral parts of what makes American Vandal good. Everything else though? The misunderstandings and clarifications and mushy, messy insides of the characters and the show? That’s what makes American Vandal great.