American Vandal's profound potty humor
American Vandal is a show that dares you to write it off.
A satire that sends up true crime shows like Making a Murderer and podcasts like Serial, American Vandal interrogates our obsession with the genre by crafting an equally compelling documentary of its own — only centered on a patently absurd, made-up crime committed by fictional teens. With straight-faced, deadpan vulgarity, American Vandal looks you dead in the eye as it delivers jokes about penises with all the severity of a Ken Burns film. Then it walks you towards something profound.
In its second season, which premieres Friday on Netflix, American Vandal takes on the case of "the Turd Burglar," a prankster who drugged his Catholic school cafeteria with a potent laxative, causing nearly his entire school to simultaneously suffer from a wave of immediate and explosive diarrhea.
Look: This is a disgusting hurdle to clear. It's excessive and revisited frequently, albeit largely through smartphone cameras so it's not too detailed. Poop, to quote one of American Vandal's fictional documentarians, is funny, but not in the same way the series' first-season epidemic of crude, spray-painted drawings of penises is funny. You can't pull a stunt like this without having a good point to make, and fortunately, American Vandal is working towards one.
While it starts as a farce, the hunt for the Turd Burglar's identity takes on increasingly fascinating layers of depth, most notably via the characters we meet along the way. The students of St. Bernadine Catholic School are — much like those in American Vandal's first season — remarkably well-drawn characters. Its central subjects, like campus oddball Kevin McClain or star athlete DeMarcus Tillman, appear to be generic archetypes at first, but are slowly fleshed out with a stunning level of specificity. You know kids like this.
That specificity is important, because American Vandal's second season is all about self and the performance of it, a notion that's been central to pop culture narratives about high school since John Hughes, but takes on an unprecedented level of intensity in 2018, with a generation of teens who have not had a conscious moment without the internet in their lives.
The scatological satire of American Vandal's Turd Burglar investigation is merely a front for an incisive portrait of life lived as much online as off, a surprisingly dark story about how technology causes us to tread an increasingly thin line between normality and monstrousness. In high school, we are petty, we are wrong, we are vindictive and cruel. We are also all those things on the internet. Both have lasting consequences, but we, as a culture, still haven't fully grasped the breadth with which online harassment can derail lives, subjecting people to lasting stigmas in a crushingly public manner.
For a show that's built on literal potty humor, American Vandal is largely concerned with extremely sobering ideas. There's a sadness to the season's final few episodes. The investigation takes turns that are best left unspoiled, but in an understated way they serve as an indictment of our cultural moment. The revelations that occur in the second half of the season should be more outlandish than the absurd event that kicks it off, but they're not. We should balk at something as ridiculous as a mass laxative poisoning, but the finale reveals an evil that is all too familiar. This is how we live now.
That is American Vandal's best and most unsettling trick: It dares you to play in the gutter, and then shows you that the elevated place you came from isn't as clean as you thought it was.