American Vandal plays to its strengths in new season

Courtesy of Netflix Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) prepares Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) for his first interview.
Courtesy of Netflix
Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) prepares Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) for his first interview.

Josiah Martin | Arts & Entertainment Editor

09/27/18

Last year, Netflix’s American Vandal was a surprise hit: a mockumentary surrounding two young filmmakers as they try to clear the name of a student framed for spray-painting penises on teachers’ cars. The result was unexpectedly riveting: a genuinely interesting mystery, with the backdrop of an impressively honest depiction of American high school culture.

Season 2 features the original filmmakers joining the hunt for the “Turd Burglar,” an anonymous figure who wreaks several instances of fecal havoc on an unsuspecting private Catholic school. Much like the first season, the show quickly undergoes a tonal shift from non-stop comedy to puzzling and emotionally moving within the first few episodes.

In the opening scenes of the first episode, viewers are introduced to Saint Bernardine, a Catholic high school in Bellevue, Washington. Uniformed students sit before the camera and one-by-one explain the horrors of “the brownout,” the day in which nearly the entire student body felt the consequences of laxative-tainted lemonade. This incident, put lightly, left the bathrooms, hallways and monogrammed sweaters of the school in shambles.

This scene is hysterical. It repeats what was done so well with the show’s original season: the people being interviewed take the incident so unabashedly seriously, and recall it with such realistic shame and thousand-yard stares, that the sheer ridiculousness of the incident itself is that much funnier.

Then, just like the previous season, we’re not thinking about how funny the prank itself was. We’re instead suddenly concerned about the characters. We don’t want to think that the awkward Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) actually pulled the heinous stunt, and we certainly don’t want to see him framed for it if he’s innocent.

Where American Vandal succeeds especially in this season, which has scaled back the constant gags and over-the-top humor, is in its portrayal of the students and faculty of the high school. From the aggressively faux-relatable English teacher who remarks “I like to think of Kurt Vonnegut as the Kanye West of satirical postmodern literature” to the untouchable star basketball player, every character feels real. This is not a comedy writer’s vision of high school; this is a high schooler’s vision of high school.

Yes, this season is a bit toned-down comedically. You won’t be rolling on the floor laughing quite as often as you would have with the previous episodes. This is a good thing. American Vandal has realized its strengths: the humor is in the juxtaposition, the palpable emotion and the sympathy for the characters occasionally broken by the ludicrous circumstances they’ve found themselves in.

The investigation itself is the same type of slowly-unravelling mystery that kept viewers on the edge of their seat last year. The prime suspect is constantly changing, and you find yourself doubting the veracity of almost every piece of evidence that comes to light. Though lacking in number of big twists per episode, the mystery of the Turd Burglar is still bound to keep viewers hooked.

In short, the bar was high, but American Vandal has done it again. It is a must-watch for Netflix bingers, comedy-lovers and mystery-lovers alike.