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March 12, 2018 | by  | in Arts TV |
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American Vandal

Who knew one long dick joke could be so satisfying?

Coming onto Netflix in the later part of 2017, American Vandal proved to be a surprising success. The show is essentially a true-crime mockumentary, though it takes itself seriously enough for the viewer to buy into the format and story as something real. Two members of Hanover High School’s AV club take it upon themselves to uncover the culprit and motives behind a crime that has shaken up the school: Who spray-painted dicks on 27 cars in the teacher’s parking lot? After the prime suspect of the crime, class clown and school oaf Dylan (Youtube’s Jimmy Tatro) is found guilty and expelled, the main documentarian Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and his partner Sam (Griffin Gluck) become interested in exploring the crime, and Dylan’s potential innocence, to its fullest extent. The two release their investigation as a weekly web-series being aired in real time, which goes viral, affecting the nature of the investigation.  

Set in a realistic and relatable high school environment, Peter gathers information through social media and student gossip, to try discover who was behind the crime. There is an episode dedicated to unpacking the reliability of the crime’s key witness, after rumours surface that he received a hand job from the school’s most popular girl; another episode deconstructs an alibi that rests on an Instagram post.

The show employs the same high level of detail we would expect from a genuinely serious true-crime series; think Making a Murderer or the 2014 podcast Serial. But instead of murder, we’re dealing with balls on a bonnet. Much like the crime, the investigation itself takes a different path, through the analysis of Snapchat videos from the weekend, the deconstruction of text messages, and interviews with the carefully characterised student and staff bodies. As ridiculous and outlandish the theories become, the show still feels grounded. The mockumentary’s high-level analysis and deadpan approach clicks with audiences who love seeing a crime unravel; you feel genuinely invested in what is a clearly a ridiculous crime.

If all American Vandal aimed to do was mock the tropes of true-crime TV, the show may still be good but would in no way be a success. As audience members will realise, the series sets up a wider examination of themes involving censorship, immediacy of information, journalistic integrity in the Internet age, and identity in high school life. This is enhanced by the real-time progression and evolution of the episodes; the episodes we see are, in the world of the show, being seen weekly by the students and staff of Hanover High School. This causes reputations of key characters to change, students to become more involved in the investigation and further revelations to come to light. All of these combine to create a story where we never really know if all the facts and theories are fully outlined or true, keeping viewers guessing up until the final episode.

American Vandal triumphs because the show’s characters present themselves, and the juvenile crime at issue, as seriously as, and at times better than the true-crime documentaries that it’s satirising do. The show is so much more than just dicks. It’s a refreshing take on an arguably limp genre which will no doubt satisfy true-crime and comedy fans alike.

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