At first glance, it is easy to mistake American Vandal as a serious documentary series. It has that Netflix documentary font, the mysterious introductory music, and an open question monologue. You then realise that initially, it is about one thing:
I succinctly remember rolling my eyes when Lad Bible and Unilad starting getting excited over the Netflix trailers. American Vandal is a mockumentary series that displays itself as a satire of true crime documentaries. The series follows the aftermath of a costly high school prank that led to the expulsion of “class clown” Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro). He claims his innocence despite the overwhelming evidence. The prank? Drawings of a huge penis spray-painted on 27 faculty cars. Sophomore Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) leads the investigation and is seen as the “filmmaker”.
Now I know what you are thinking. This sounds utterly ridiculous. It sounds immature. Heck, at first I did not want to touch it. To my surprise, I quite enjoyed this Netflix Original Series. More than I imagined. The thing is, American Vandal mocks not just true crime investigations but the audience, too. The entire construct of each episode appears like the famous true crime stories. Serial, Icarus and Making a Murderer are all documentaries that I have become consumed by. They are easily absorbing. The music, the apparent revelations, the opening sequences; all these components are copied by American Vandal and quite frankly, although it is laughing at you, by the time you get to the middle of the series you are laughing with them.
American Vandal displays our obsession with true crime stories, how we take everything as fact and how we are easily roped in by entertaining factors. It is ridiculously authentic despite the subtle humour that provides the odd rye smile. With each episode, Peter Maldonado is scrummaging through evidence and trying to make connections via high school students and teachers. What happened at the time of the crime? Who is annoyed with who? Was there more than one person involved? Was it the accused or can the actual crime ever be solved? Although it is a fiction, the filmmaker goes through the motions as if it were a real investigation, and it works. Why? Well, because I became a sucker to the plot – I really wanted Peter to solve the case and exonerate Dylan as if it were a true story.
Despite it being overstretched for a story about penises drawn on a car, I binge-watched this in one day. The plot is highly engaging with a range of very good characters. What adds to the authenticity are the performances of the cast involved – even those less important to the story. I always feel that fictionalised stories about real life must be harder for the actor because they become a normal person and there is no over dramatisation of a character. It has to feel real. Okay, so the first two episodes were really a barrel of laughs with the word penis thrown around more than I would have liked, but then you are faced with realistic camera work, the kind of footage you’d expect from police station tapes from Making a Murderer.
In the end, you may as well be watching a true crime story documentary but I guess that is the point. As I sat there munching through a nacho at a time, scratching my head over the investigation, I understood the power of good editing and imaginative ways to tell a story. “Filmmaker” Pete spells it out to you various times the many conspiracies that can come to the surface if everything is thought about on a whiteboard. American Vandal benefits from the fact that it is based in a high school because from my experience, gossip is rife in those type of environments.
Honestly, this is no joke; the mockumentary about a boy expelled because of the accusation of drawing penises on cars is actually worth the watch even if it is one episode too long. You will honestly start laughing at yourself when you realise how easy it is to be reeled in by the many documentaries that absorb us today. This parody is smarter than what you expect. I’d happily watch it again.
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