Netflix has a new sleeper hit that you’ve been missing. It’s called “American Vandal,” and it’s outrageously good.
“American Vandal” is essentially “Making a Murderer,” but about a fictional high school where a crime was committed. The crime, however, was spray-painting 27 cars in the faculty parking lot with the same repeated image: a cartoon penis.
You’d think a fake documentary about genitalia graffiti would be too ridiculous a premise. That’s what I thought! I was wrong.
“American Vandal” takes its stupidity very, very seriously.
On paper, an eight-episode fake documentary series about a dumb high school vandalism sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous, but “American Vandal” manages to make the investigation as intriguing as the very thing it mocks: Shows like “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” and podcasts like “S-Town” and “Serial.”
The reason for that is because it treats the situation at hand – a hilarious juvenile image spray-painted identically on 27 cars – as seriously as a real murder case.
“In a way this is a four-hour d— joke,” series co-creator Dan Perrault told Vanity Fair in an interview last month. “But in a more general sense, it’s basically taking very silly things and treating them extremely seriously.”
That ethos is evident right from the jump, which features a splashy intro and an interview with the main suspect: Dylan Maxwell.
Not only is “American Vandal” a fake documentary about a high school vandalism, but many of its characters – including the fake documentarians themselves – are high schoolers.
Dylan Maxwell, above, is considered the senior class clown by his fellow students. He’s notorious for drawing cartoon penises all over his high school. A montage, supposedly pulled from social media videos and YouTube, shows Maxwell humping a piñata.
His first interview for the documentary opens the show, intercut with footage from the local news about the vandalism and brief interviews with other students. The news report says it could be upwards of $100,000 in damages. His fellow students think it’s obvious who’s responsible. He’s facing expulsion, and potential criminal charges.
Maxwell, of course, claims innocence. And he doesn’t know who did it. “It’s super f—ing funny, so that’s all chill,” Maxwell says. “But letting me get expelled for something I didn’t even do? It’s just suuuuch a b—- move.”
This is the tone of “American Vandal”: deadly serious about something very dumb.
“American Vandal” is full of amazing little details that make it feel incredibly real.
The show is produced “In Association With The Hanover High School TV Department,” and it’s executive produced by “Mr. Baxter” (a teacher at Hanover High).
That said, the production values are just as high as any of the big name docs out there.
There are 3D re-creations of events, for instance, but the tactic is used in “American Vandal” as a means of exploring whether or not an average-looking guy hooked up with an especially pretty lady, for example.
“American Vandal” does a remarkable job of working within the boundaries it sets for itself. The documentary’s production team are friends, and they’re interviewing teachers who they may or may not have classes with. That might mean one of the crew members mysteriously drops out of an episode or two, for instance.
It sounds sitcom-y, but it plays out in a shockingly mundane way that’s far more comparable with real high school life. Some of the “evidence” revealed throughout the course of the show results in real issues – like parents finding out how many times their teens had hooked up, for instance. The relationships aren’t overdramatized or played up for dramatic effect. It’s the same awkward nonsense you remember from high school, but more charming.
By making a great mockumentary, “American Vandal” ended up sucking me in just like the real thing.
There’s one big question at the center of “American Vandal”: Who drew the penises?
It’s asked over and over throughout the series, and it’s a question that – while hilarious and ridiculous and juvenile – became just as important to me as the fictional high schoolers on the show.
While laughing loudly, regularly at “American Vandal,” my wife and I became obsessed with knowing who was actually to blame. We started discussing potential culprits. We formed theories. We texted about it.
We’re still talking about a fake documentary about penis graffiti, right?
“American Vandal” is available now on Netflix. You should really watch it.
I know it sounds super dumb. I know! But it’s the right kind of dumb – so detailed and thoughtful that it transcends its ridiculous subject matter, and reveals that it’s actually quite brilliant.
Check out a trailer right here if you’re still on the fence (but beware it’s a tad NSFW):