Review: American Vandal
American Vandal is the smartest, most surprising hit of the year.
Netlfix’s American Vandal is an 8-episode true-crime parody about spray-painted dicks on cars and not only is thoroughly brilliant, it might be the best thing Netflix has ever done.
The set-up is deceptively simple: a number of faculty cars are vandalized with penises at a high school, which turns into a classic true-crime whodunit, with a clear suspect, a key witness, and an equal parts self-serious and self-aware documentary team looking for the truth.
The suspect, Dylan (Jimmy Tatro), is a poor student generally considered to be a degenerate and it’s easy to believe he’s guilty so most do just that, including teachers. An ambitious filmmaker named (Tyler Alvarez) takes the case and immediately gets to work exposing the secrets and motivations of students and faculty even remotely connected to the vandalism. Naturally, as questions are raised, the plot thickens. As the scope of the investigation expands and the cast of characters increases, the satire only gets slicker and humour more sophisticated.
The series is visually addictive from the opening frame but when the narrator, in perfect documentary cadence, says, “but the school board saved their most damning point for last: Dylan was a known dick drawer”, and it actually works to increase dramatic tension, Scandal’s status as a binge-worthy is confirmed.
It is true the entire series looks immaculate which is either part of the satire (likely) or means it’s overly polished, but either way, it is clear that the creators paid remarkably close attention to previous entries in the genre. The editing and structure are meticulously designed to ensure that Scandal is simultaneously a biting satire and perceptive high-school drama. All the greatest hits of true crime docs are put to use – animated sequences, grainy footage, classic documentary narration, dramatic music, repetitive and ominous b-roll, manipulative changes in tone – and it’s done gloriously well.
Scandal also provides a peak at the future of documentaries and true-crime. Youtube fandom, virality, comment sections, Snapchat, and Instagram all feed into the mystery and prove just as important to the investigation as classic tools like animated sequences or 3D renderings.
The real strength of the series, in addition to the diligently designed narrative structure, is the cast. All of the performances ring true and the characters feel real and lived in as they messily trek through a severely digitalized high-school experience. Never above an easy laugh, but also crazy smart, American Scandal is an effective satire with a lot more on its mind than dick jokes, even though there are a lot of those. Viewers have never, and will likely never again, be so invested in spray-paint splatter.