Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance. This time, we head back to high school to revisit American Vandal.
The trailer for Netflix’s original series American Vandal opens with dramatic music and serious narration, and it’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a traditional true-crime documentary. A serious tone plays over various testimonials, slow-zooms, and close-ups, and if you weren’t paying attention, you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take when a teen named Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) faces the camera and says, plain as day, “Another day, another dick.”
The premise of Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault’s satirical mockumentary is at once deeply recognizable to anyone who’s been to high school in the current millennium, and extremely surreal at the same time. American Vandal‘s first season sees Dylan expelled from Hanover High School and facing felony vandalism charges for allegedly spray-painting phallic imagery on twenty-seven cars in the school’s faculty parking lot. Dylan’s reputation as a troublemaker serves to incriminate him, but his underclassman, self-styled documentarian Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), noting that all the evidence against Dylan is circumstantial, sets out with his best friend Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) to prove Dylan’s innocence. In their investigation, they uncover dirty secrets and administrative corruption and explore the facets and nuances of the modern American high school.
All of this is framed in-universe as a web documentary being produced by Peter and Sam. The mockumentary setup puts the camera eye in the hands of the students themselves, rather than an outside third-person perspective, and in doing so, drags the common film-and-television setting of “the American high school” kicking and screaming into the modern era. While high school stories have never been out of fashion, they have continued to rely on archetypes laid out by John Hughes in the 1980s. By diving deeper into the high school ecosystem, American Vandal breaks down these archetypes and modernizes them.
The two seasons of American Vandal feature characters who feel fully realized and familiar in the best ways. Dylan is the perfect encapsulation of this: a stoner troublemaker, certainly, but also someone whose underprivileged background informs his attitude towards authority. Documentarians Peter and Sam are, in their own way, similar: a pretentious film snob and a theater geek madly in love with his upperclassman. From overbearing young teachers desperate for admiration to beloved education veterans and from nudity-comfortable swimming jocks to “Tank Top Todd,” the characters all feel distinctly and decisively modern — willing and unwilling participants in the 21st century.
Outside of its characters, American Vandal also differentiates itself from other high school-set stories by exploring their peculiarly American ecosystems. The conflicts in this series span the characters’ interactions, but they’re also deeply intertwined with the sociological landscapes of the schools themselves. More often than not, contemporary films and television series set in high school treat the setting as a backdrop to the character drama. Teachers and principals are merely props and plot devices to the students’ own troubles — dealers of detentions but rarely exerting their influence beyond petty inconveniencing of our student protagonists. American Vandal breaks ties with this concept by digging into and exploring the very real nuances present within 21st-century schools. This series takes great pleasure in exploring the internal politics of educational institutions.
For example, both seasons feature school officials who are willing and eager to let innocents take the fall for crimes they did not commit in order to achieve their larger goals. Finding the truth in spite of these authority figures becomes a major part of Peter’s investigations. The show is especially brutal in this honesty in Season 2 of American Vandal when Peter and Sam investigate a criminal incident at a privately funded Catholic school. The obviously satirical moments of private-school culture are paired with grave accusations of favoritism within Saint Bernardine, the fictional school that throws one of its “loser” students under the bus in order to protect its star athlete’s reputation.
While all this would be more than enough to make a great series, American Vandal delves even further into the true crime genre it satirizes by addressing the ethics of the genre itself. A video essay by YouTuber Sarah Z delves into this in-depth, but to summarize, the exposes uncovered by true crime investigative journalists often have very real effects on the people involved in the case, and revealing their secrets can often be very painful for them. True crime fetishizes peoples’ problems, and, in-universe, Peter’s investigations inadvertently airs out his classmates’ and peers’ dirty laundry as if it is public record, and throws many of their lives into chaos. This is milked for drama but leaves a very open-ended and real question about the true crime genre in the minds of the audience. Was the investigation ethical? Was finding the truth worth all the muckraking?
All of this is sewn together with a remarkably organic form of authentic improvisational performance, as attested to by many members of the cast. Interviews with Tyler Alvarez and Jimmy Tatro and G. Hannelius describe how little of the whole story was given to them per episode script, and how their subsequently authentic performances evolved from this “need to know” method. Some sequences — most notably, the “party scenes” — were even filmed on iPhones, in order to capture that particular “phone footage” look. Despite the obvious satire inherent in American Vandal’s premise, the show’s feeling of authenticity draws viewers in and engages them in a fundamentally absurd premise; Who did the dicks? Who is the Turd Burglar? How can such seemingly sophomoric terminology exist within a suspenseful and seriously engaging series?
American Vandal was unfortunately cut short in 2018 when it was announced that Netflix would not be renewing the series. The story of Peter and Sam’s gradually evolving ability as documentarians aside, there are so many more subcategories of American education to explore. Hypothetical future seasons could follow the pair on adventures in university, public or private, or they could pivot to follow an entirely new documentary crew, inspired by the in-universe American Vandal series, making their own piece centered on anything from inner-city school issues to a petty rivalry between two small-town Midwestern schools. The US education system has any number of small-scale conflicts that could evolve into a fascinating case for the aspiring film student to do an in-depth documentary on.
Rumors abound that American Vandal’s producers are shopping further seasons to other venues and platforms, but in any case, the cancellation of such a unique and brilliant series is an absolute tragedy. Rarely do audiences get to experience something as tongue-in-cheek as American Vandal, something that relentlessly mocks as much as it admires both popular entertainment conventions and real American educational institutions. We deserve more of it.