By Thomas Infante
Netflix has never been afraid to take risks when it comes to producing original content. While the company has had a string of successful and critically acclaimed funny cartoons like “Bojack Horseman,” “F is for Family” and “Big Mouth,” their live-action comedies have been far less original. Usually, the company tries to bank on audience nostalgia by producing derivative garbage like “Fuller House” and the fourth season of “Arrested Development.”
Perhaps as a result of these failures, the company released “American Vandal,” one of the funniest and most ludicrous shows Netflix has ever made. The show is structured as a satirical documentary-style series like “Making a Murderer,” but the investigation centers on high school senior Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), who has been expelled from school for spray painting phallic imagery on 27 of the school faculty’s cars, though Dylan maintains his innocence.
After Dylan’s expulsion, sophomores Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) begin an investigation into the incident, gathering information and interviewing students and faculty along the way to figure out “who drew the dicks?” Even very minor characters that are interviewed are very believable, and the overall depiction of how the kids talk and act seems very authentic in a way that most movies and shows about high school usually fail to achieve.
The show is presented so seriously that it’s easy to forget how juvenile subject matter is. When Maldonado is narrating over a slideshow of pictures and videos, you really feel drawn into the mystery of who was responsible for the vandalism. This suspension of disbelief is both reaffirmed and shattered by Dylan Maxwell, who is the embodiment of the class clown you knew in high school. Dylan doesn’t go to school to learn, he goes to draw penises on the whiteboard and make whale noises in class. He either spends his free time with his crazy girlfriend Mackenzie, or smoking weed and making “Jackass”-style YouTube videos with his friends. To the school board, it seems obvious that Dylan is the vandal, even if there is no hard evidence to pin it on him.
Character flaws aside, every moment Dylan is on screen is wonderful. He embodies the essence of an 18-year-old burnout stoner just as thoroughly as Daniel Day-Lewis did Abraham Lincoln. After watching Dylan for a while, you really want to believe that he’s innocent, and so does Maldonado. Even though Dylan’s case looks bleak, the documentarians pursue every possible lead to exonerate Dylan.
The evidence they look for, however important to the case, is almost always completely ridiculous. For example, Dylan’s alibi during the incident was that he was with his friends, pretending to be Kiefer Sutherland while prank calling a senile old man who lives nearby. Maldonado insists that if they can obtain the voicemail of the call from the old man, they can prove Dylan’s innocence.
Other leads involve some hilarious side characters. Since the security camera footage of the incident was deleted, the school board relied on the testimony of Dylan’s classmate Alex Trimboli, whose honesty is known to be questionable. One of his alleged falsehoods includes getting a hand job at summer camp from classmate Sarah Pearson, and Maldonado goes to great lengths to challenge the validity of this in order to delegitimize his testimony.
Maldonado also relies on information from history teacher Mr. Kraz, who tries way too hard to be the “cool teacher.” He makes Twitter polls about his students and still says “yolo” in 2017, but he also provides a valuable perspective to the documentary as a faculty member. In one breath he’ll tell Maldonado valuable information about fellow teachers, in another comparing female colleagues to “the bald guy in ‘Game of Thrones’ with no dick.”
In between the hilarity and stupidity are really profound and heartfelt moments for these characters. In one episode, Maldonado and Ecklund each profile the other, in order to objectively find whether or not one of them could have been the perpetrator. While Ecklund takes the opportunity to make fun of his friend, Maldonado legitimately attempts to dig up dirt on Ecklund, causing a rift between the two.
Even Dylan has some serious moments, especially toward the end of the show. In one scene, Dylan and his classmates are watching the finished documentary at a house party, and Dylan is forced to watch the interviewees talk about how dumb they really think he is. You can tell he realizes that all the people around him are fake and that his fame is worthless, even if he can’t articulate it as such.
“American Vandal” is a show that draws you in with its absurdity before hooking you with actual emotional investment. It combines the humor and vibe of “Superbad” with the presentation of “Serial.” It’s extremely well done, and shows the potential of an idea that, like Dylan himself, is so hilariously simple that it almost seems stupid.