American Vandal is one of the best, smartest, most well written, most well acted shows of 2017.
On the afternoon of March 15, 2016, someone spray-painted penises on twenty-seven cars in the faculty parking lot at Hanover High School. The security camera footage was deleted, but everyone knows who did it: Dylan Maxwell, the fuck-up with a history of drawing dicks.
But Peter Maldonado thinks he's innocent, and he's making a documentary to find out the truth.
Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, with showrunner Dan Lagana, took inspiration from popular true-crime series like Serial and Making a Murderer, but it is absolutely not necessary to have seen or listened to any of their multiple inspirations because this is not a two-minute joke trailer painfully stretched out over eight episodes that alternates between dick jokes and references/homages to other things. It is a genuinely riveting mystery that's better constructed than those of some serious mystery shows, with twists and turns at every corner and dramatic cliffhangers that make the show incredibly binge-able (you're going to want to just sit down for four hours because, trust me, you'll want to know who drew the dicks). Peter and his co-documentarian, Sam Ecklund, dig through mounds of evidence, from text messages and Instagram posts to Snapchat videos and, yes, sometimes even actual regular photographs. They plot their theories out on a whiteboard, they attempt to reconstruct events, they do all the things you would do if you were investigating something far more dire than dicks on cars. And I assure you, the show never attempts to artificially raise the stakes with an actual murder or some shit. The brilliance of the series is how it treats this low-stakes crime with all the same gravity, and it fucking works.
Everyone fully commits to American Vandal as a legitimate documentary, and so much of the comedy comes from the fact that the people in the show don't realize they're in a comedy. There are only a couple jokes that break the fourth wall a little and point out the absurdity of what they're doing, and the show itself usually eschews the rhythms of an actual comedy, without obvious setup/punchline scenes, although there are some wonderful running gags. Instead the show finds humor in the characters themselves and the high school environment, which it portrays more accurately than, say, 13 Reasons Why (which I also really liked, by the way). People say funny things in interviews, sometimes regrettable things. High school kids sometimes act like silly high school kids. And Dylan Maxwell himself, well, Dylan is a fucking comedy goldmine and Jimmy Tatro deserves to be recognized for his incredible acting, not only because he's funny as hell but because he actually has a hell of a character arc. Some of his scenes in the finale, goddamn.
Because this show isn't just about drawing dicks. It's about the way we judge people and bend the truth to fit our preconceived notions. It's about how the search for the truth can uncover things you never wanted to know. It's about how making a documentary makes you part of the story. The finale of American Vandal packs an emotional wallop that actually feels earned amongst its array of dick jokes. It's thought-provoking and incisive, the show walking a precarious tonal tightrope and never so much as losing its balance.
American Vandal was three thousand times better than I expected it to be. I cannot believe they pulled that off. Like Dylan Maxwell, it's more complex than you'd ever think to give it credit for.
But also like Dylan Maxwell, it draws a lot of dicks.