American Vandal isn’t a one stroke show
Netflix’s mockumentary series takes a long, hard look at phallic graffiti
By Paul McAleer, Contributor
“Who drew the dicks?” This is the central question in Netflix’s newest breakout series, American Vandal. It’s a ridiculous concept, but the show doesn’t acknowledge it, keeping a straight face throughout its eight-episode run.
The show is a mockumentary, poking fun at true crime with surgical precision. Instead of murder, the show deals in dicks –a lot of them.
Without giving too much away, American Vandal is an absolutely essential watch for fans of the documentary genre. It doesn’t matter if you fancy Making a Murderer or BBC’s Planet Earth, the style and tone of this phallic-obsessed Netflix series will pull you in and never let you go.
The story starts off with news footage of a vandalized high school faculty parking lot. With hulking penises graffitied to 27 cars, the scene is chaos, featuring a mix of amusement from students and utter disbelief from the victims.
In addition to your standard news footage with dry voices and talking head interviews at the forefront, more colourful Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook footage is also shown. Social media plays a large role in the investigation throughout the show.
It isn’t long before the documentary establishes its culprit, Dylan Maxwell, played by Jimmy Tatro of YouTube fame. Tatro’s character wants to become a YouTube prank star, pulling off dimwitted stunts such as tipping a Porta Potty and farting in children’s faces.
We all know someone like Dylan in high school. Everyone thinks he vandalized the cars, and he gets expelled from school as a consequence. He pleads innocent, but no one believes him.
The only people that consider other suspects are the documentary makers Peter Maldonado, played by Tyler Alvarez, and Sam Eklund, played by Griffin Gluck. If these actors sound unfamiliar, it’s a good thing, because it will help you believe American Vandal is real, if only for the runtime of an episode.
As the plot progresses, the documentary presents more questions than answers, building suspense and frustration with each failed accusation. Why is our dick-drawing culprit so elusive? Because the truth is complicated and American Vandal proves hunting for it brings consequences.
Without giving any major plot elements away, certain conclusions and “evidence” points to culprits other than Dylan, who at this point has become a lovable idiot. The show is full of humour, but it’s the serious elements that are truly captivating.
American Vandal is actually the name of the documentary the fictional characters are producing, so we are learning things with them in real time, and drawing our own conclusions. A bunch of students are wrongly accused with evidence that would shatter any high school student’s self-esteem.
Sam and Peter’s relentless pursuit to catch the person behind the penises hurts innocent people. It even hurts the documentary makers themselves, including the shocking reveal Sam pleasures himself using American Apparel catalogues.
The rabbit hole goes deep, but catching the real culprit was never the intention of the show. American Vandal proves that the truth is what we make of it. Our minds connect the dots even if the conclusions are based on circumstantial evidence.
Accepting someone’s version of the truth is dangerous, but we do it all the time, especially in journalism.
Reporters have the power to frame facts and organize information. We can be selective of the truth, both at a conscious and subconscious level. It’s so easy to take content at face value without thinking about how it’s presented to us.
In a world where truth is as meaningless as it has ever been thanks to manipulative leaders, we need to question every bit of content we consume at a critical level.
With each suspect, American Vandal presents enough information for the viewer to believe they’ve caught the real criminal until other evidence proves otherwise. The show even addresses its own faults and the harm it caused in the conclusion.
Other documentaries don’t apologize for bending the truth to create suspense. Other documentaries don’t revolve around penises, but American Vandal knows what makes other documentaries successful and what drags them down.
Whether they are about dicks or murderers, we will never look at other documentaries the same after American Vandal.