‘American Vandal’ hints at a new era for the streaming service.
Netflix has just announced American Vandal, an eight-part true crime series in the same vein as the network’s grisly documentary greats (Making a Murderer, Amanda Knox, The Keepers) only there’s a key difference here. Rather than an unsolved historical case, American Vandal is caught up with the contemporary as it tries to work out who’s responsible for all the crude phalluses that have been painted on the Hanover High School faculty’s cars.
Yes, American Vandal is a mockumentary. The half-hour show, from the minds of Tony Yacenda and Daniel Perrault, follows the story of Dylan Maxwell (YouTuber and comedian Jimmy Tatro), a senior who has been expelled because his teachers believe he’s the culprit behind the vulgar vandalism. Apparently, he has form for this — according to someone who knows him, Dylan is a “known dick-drawer” — but not everyone is so ready to indict him. Dylan’s persistent professions of innocence pique the interest of schoolmate and aspiring documentary filmmaker Peter Maldanaldo (Tyler Alvarez), who sets out to unearth the truth with a pithy style reminiscent of the genre’s pros Sarah Koenig (of Serial fame), The Jinx’s Andrew Jarecki, and Tickled’s David Farrier.
From the looks of the trailer, American Vandal is full of this kind of cheeky self-satire: there’s the staple ominous voiceover juxtaposed with happy videos from childhood, deposition-style footage, and more than one hint at a secret conspiracy. While it might lack the “primal thrill of fear” behind so many murder-themed crime documentaries, there’s just enough of a pervading sense of injustice present here to whet our appetite for scandal and cover-up.
By retaining all of these hallmarks of true crime shows, American Vandal looks like it will turn out to be just as binge-worthy as its graver predecessors, despite its light-hearted subject matter. From the few clues available, I’m already trying to puzzle out the answer to the urgent question posed in the trailer: “Who drew the dicks?”
True crime enthusiasts might not necessarily be instant fans of American Vandal, though. The series pokes fun at the artistic impulses of teen boys, which many viewers (irrespective of age) will probably be well acquainted with, but there’s a chance your comedic tastes range beyond rudimentary anatomical sketches. If this is the case — or if the show’s lampooning of the genre feels a little indelicately done to you — then American Vandal might not appear to you as the playful send-up it strikes me as being. Personally, I think it’s enjoyably ribald.
Its ability to shape the TV zeitgeist is what Netflix has come to be known for, but we’ve never seen it take this self-referential parodic form before, which is what makes American Vandal interesting. The whole tongue-in-cheek set-up of the trailer, which also includes references to the social media buzz true crime shows usually inspire, suggests the network isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and the wave it’s been riding these last few years. To my mind, this is what looks most exciting about American Vandal: even if dick jokes aren’t the freshest comedy material, Netflix is mixing up its image with a healthy dose of self-awareness that can only mean good things for the streaming site.
Watch the trailer for the series, which debuts globally September 15: