The comedic hook of “American Vandal” — what if there was a true crime docuseries about a really dumb crime, like a teenager spray-painting a bunch of dicks onto cars? — only really has enough mileage for a five-minute parody trailer on YouTube. It would have felt stretched thin after a single episode, never mind a whole season. But the potty humor of “American Vandal” was merely a Trojan horse; the series takes its stories and characters seriously in such a way that the audience can’t help but get invested as well. It’s no small feat to get viewers genuinely engaged with the mystery of which teacher ate a piece of chocolate-covered cat poop, and that’s why “American Vandal” is so impressive.
A lot of TV shows and movies have tried to tangle with modern technology, and what ends up on screen often ends up being either laughably inaccurate or a doom-laden cautionary tale about how social media will kill us all. Another Netflix favorite, “Black Mirror,” has been clowned on for repeatedly returning to the “technology = evil” well, with a satirical article by The Toast memorably summarizing the show as “what if phones but too much?”
By contrast, “American Vandal” offers razor-sharp accuracy in its depiction of tech as a tool for crime-solving (in season 1, high school detective Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund use memes to verify the suggestive undertones of texting “heyy” with two Ys; in season 2, they eliminate suspects by checking their social media posts for a particular glitch that only occurred on certain iPhone models). Many shows are written from the perspective of adults who grew up before the internet was really a thing, and view social media as either shallow and silly, or downright evil. But “American Vandal” sees the beauty in the “fake” versions of themselves that young people post online, observing that these digital self portraits are actually a way of experimenting with identities in the search for one that fits.
Ultimately, what makes “American Vandal” great is its intense compassion for the teens at the heart of its story. In its search for a culprit, it reveals that there are no straightforward bad villains or heroes. The confident, popular kids have their share of deep-seated insecurities. The most beloved and respected teachers have secret pockets of bias and vindictiveness.
“American Vandal” critiques how the true crime documentary genre takes real people and fits them into the roles of villain or hero, protagonist or antagonist, pushing their humanity aside as an inconvenience. When Peter and Sam make segments about each other to examine the possibility that either of them might be the vandal, both end up deeply hurt by having the cold eye of the documentary turned on them. A celebratory moment at the end of season 1 is tainted by a schoolmate cornering Peter and asking him why he felt it necessary to include private text messages revealing her list of hook-ups in the documentary. It had almost no relevance to the investigation; it was simply private information turned into fodder for the content machine.
As Peter concludes in his final monologue for “American Vandal” season 2: “We’re not the worst generation; we’re just the most exposed.”