When I first saw the trailer for “American Vandal,” I felt personally attacked. The show is a parody of the true-crime documentary series genre, following two aspiring filmmakers/high schoolers as they investigate an act of vandalism at their school. As a die-hard fan of anything true-crime, I felt protective of the genre and not ready to watch anything making fun of it. But I bit the bullet and binged the entire series in one sitting. Calling it a parody may not even be correct; instead, it is a love letter to the true-crime genre.
The series follows Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) as he and his best friend Sam launch an investigation into a prank — 27 cars belonging to faculty members at their high school were vandalized with penises spray-painted on them. Senior slacker Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro, who’s the real breakthrough star of the series) has been expelled for the act, but claims he’s innocent. Peter and Sam swear to both Dylan and their school to find the truth.
The thing that impressed me most about the series is how much they nailed the aesthetic and structure of true-crime shows — especially Netflix’s other series, “Making a Murderer,” and the podcast “Serial.” When I watched the title sequence, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud — the dramatic theme song plays over really gritty pictures of the town and the crime. It’s a great nod to fans of the genre, like a little inside joke. Peter’s voiceover throughout the entire series is both very genre-accurate and hilarious. It’s exactly how you’d expect a dramatic voiceover from a 16-year-old boy to be. He brings us through all these twists and misleading theories, as you can expect when watching true crime. Even the little graphics used within the series itself were exactly like something seen in a documentary series. The creators of the show clearly have done their research.
Another smart choice by the creators of the series is the casting. The entire cast is comprised of relatively unknown actors. It gives the show an authentic feeling that just couldn’t have been pulled off by well-known actors. But just because they’re unknown doesn’t mean they aren’t great; I think the cast is what really pulls this parody off. They each give a performance that is so reminiscent of high school, there were times that I actually forgot I was watching a mockumentary. As mentioned before, Jimmy Tatro, who plays the accused student Dylan, really nails the role. He plays Dylan with immaturity and genuine stupidity — you’ll think he’s one of your real Facebook friends. Dylan’s character arc throughout the series adds some layers to him that are actually pretty heartfelt. He seems so guilty — one of his most common pranks involves drawing penises on his Spanish teacher’s whiteboard — but somehow he manages to get the audience to root for him and believe in his innocence.
The humor used throughout the show is seemingly pretty stupid — I mean, the entire series is one long penis joke — but they make it so self-aware and smart throughout. They mimic the self-seriousness of the genre in a way that is ridiculous while still really captivating. It showcases how the genre is set up to be addictive — at least, that’s what I’m telling myself — no matter what the “crime” being investigated is. I thought it was a really refreshing parody, that left me clicking the next episode to figure out the central question: Who drew all those penises?