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American Vandal is essential viewing in the era of voyeuristic true-crime docs

How the mockumentary perfectly skewers our unhealthy obsession with amateur whodunnits

American Vandal is essential viewing in the era of voyeuristic true-crime docs
13 October 2017

I came up with American Vandal. It’s true. Commuting home after a long, tedious day serving you, the content-addled public, I idly thought: “A Making A Murder slash Serial parody… say, now there’s an idea! This could be my ticket to the big bucks!”

Unfortunately, I didn’t act on this idea at all, and now someone else has made it, and it’s called American Vandal, and I’m still stuck here, at ShortList, on the small bucks. Even more crushingly, the show is not only much better than the utter nonsense I’d imagined, but legitimately very good period.

The central premise of the series is that someone has graffitied a bunch of dicks onto 27 staff members’ cars in the parking lot of a high school, and a budding 16-year-old documentarian sets about trying to identify the culprit. American Vandal is the result of his toil.

Now, stretching out a whodunit about some juvenile graffiti over eight episodes would be a funny enough concept in of itself, but – and I’m trying hard not to fall foul of Massive Hyperbole here – the extent to which American Vandal transcends its penis gag punchline has turned me, against my best judgement, into the sort of person who corners you at a party and breathlessly gushes about a TV show you Really Have To Watch.

A lot of people think making a mockumentary is easy, and that’s why there are so many god-awful ones. They look at This Is Spinal Tap and The Office and think the meticulously observed satires of the forms and conventions of documentaries are replicable by simply having a shaky handheld camera and some talking heads, and that the masterfully humane (and, moreover, funny) depictions of their subjects’ delusions and defeats are achieved just by having characters that are unbelievably arrogant and thoroughly unpleasant. Worst of all, there’s a lazy acceptance that it is somehow ‘good’ to make a ‘deliberately bad’ mockumentary; as if the amateurish shonkiness of the the whole thing is the joke itself. That’s why every amateur filmmaker - including me as a teen - thinks they can have a decent stab at it. And that’s what sets American Vandal apart.

Despite ostensibly being made a bunch of teenagers (in a nice touch you’ll miss the first time around, their character names appear in the opening credits sequence in the various production roles), the production values of the show are of the level of the true crime docs they are imitating. These kids take it seriously, openly acknowledging their influences (Serial, The Jinx, Making A Murderer, etc.) and striving to do as faithfully professional a job in their own version. Given the exponential computer literacy of each new generation, it’s refreshing that American Vandal gives them the benefit of the doubt of being able to pull it off. All the flashy editing, the beats, the narrative pauses, the establishing shots, the bells-and-whistles graphics and overly elaborate animations are there - it’s just that, crucially, they have the dicks-are-funny sensibilities of genuine 16-year-olds.

This is what makes it so funny. Where other mockumentaries can’t really justify why we should find their subject matter interesting, and so go straight for the ridiculous, it’s entirely plausible that high school kids would be fascinated by the case of some phantom dicks. And they don’t play the toilet humour for yuks, they treat it with respect. They earnestly attempt to analyse whether a discrepancy in the style of dick drawing between the accused and the perpetrator’s (“The ball hairs. Look at the ball hairs… They’re different…”) exonerates them. They scrutinise a key witnesses’ reliability by reconstructing, in full CGI, a dubious hand-job he claimed to have received during summer camp. They cross-reference the available mums of their school against their gym teacher to attempt to find out who he was seeing on a pin-board, as though solving a case in an episode of CSI.

The performances of the young (and soon to be everywhere) cast are pivotal to pulling off the tone of the show. Presenter Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) is an exceptional straight man. Peter has the deadpan delivery of his heroes - Serial’s Sarah Koening and other assorted This American Life heads - down to a tee: the speech patterns, the intonations, the dramatic pauses, exaggeratedly pursing his lips and stroking his chin in an attempt to give himself more gravitas while asking a teacher about dicks, unable to detect the level to which they’re patronisingly going along with his little film. Elsewhere, his co-producer Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) is good on gawky best friend duties, Christa Carlyle (G Hannelius) is extremely convincing as a-well-meaning-but-ultimately-annoying student activist, while Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy) is the most accurate depiction of a sycophantic desperate-to-be-loved dweeb since Randall from Recess.

The standout, however, is American Vandal’s own Steven Avery; Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), the guy accused of - and subsequently expelled for - ‘doing the dicks’. He’s a dipshit class-clown meathead with a history of dick-drawing, irritating antics, and a Jackass-style YouTube channel he runs with his ‘boys’. He seems an obvious culprit, but Peter believes in him. As a character, Dylan is pitched exactly right: simultaneously an insufferable tool and an entirely endearing patsy, as devoted to his idiotic ‘baby farting’ prank videos as he is to his girlfriend, a kid written-off for the caricature he embodies in public, belying his rich inner-life of thwarted hopes and dreams, of legitimate frustrations and fears, and a strangely touching capacity for considered compassion. All this - as in actual true crime docs - is revealed through interview. Also, he’s piss funny, with the command of timing and verbal tics, a Brad Pitt-esque drawl and screen presence usually only learned over careers twice as long.

Again, just like its real counterparts, American Vandal is a genuinely gripping mystery. Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, the show’s creators, have gone to great lengths to craft an exhaustive and compelling case of suspects, motives, twists, and timelines that means you somehow quickly forget the fact the premise is a shaggy dog penis joke and become legitimately invested in the investigation. There are stakes, too: there’s $100,000 worth of damages to pay, several college careers to end, and numerous reputations at risk of ruin.

What really elevates American Vandal above the usual New Hype Show fodder, is that it functions as a mockumentary, as a legitimately entertaining (albeit, fictional) true crime series, and as a timely and valid critique of them.

Though, in reality, the whole series was released at once on Netflix, in the show’s universe, the episodes are being released online serially. The audience is experiencing the show during the ‘investigation’ rather than at its conclusion, as is the trend with current true crime docs. Though the sense of witnessing an unfolding case is obviously thrilling as a passive viewer, the method quite clearly creates a lot of subsequent problems.

These series tend to go almost instantaneously viral - as is the case across the school and surrounding area of American Vandal - and the fanbase want to take an active role. Increasingly, there is a barely perceptible difference in the way we consume these true crime serials from the way we watch a fictional series, with viewers creating elaborate fan theories for the suspects as though they were characters in Game of Thrones. Many seem unable to discern the line between hypothesising and actively interfering, and Peter receives a deluge of unhelpful suggestions that range from the wilfully unreliable to outright false. Not only does this impede the progress of the investigation, but it means innocent people must live with question marks over their head until the series’ conclusion.

The ongoing nature of these series means that talking head contributors rarely know what they’re getting themselves into, offering up information on camera to be devoured by the amateur detective general public, the antithesis of the controlled and classified environments in which witness statements are supposed to be given. The students’ loose-lipped history teacher Mr Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan), a strange the-kids-love-me! sad sack who hasn’t grown out of his jock tendencies in adulthood, discovers this to his chagrin. After speaking too frankly about his colleagues (and lewdly about his students), having believed the kids’ documentary to be destined for small things and enjoying the attention, he swiftly finds himself out of a job when it becomes a massive hit.

The show also makes an astute point about the perils of the hobbyist detective-as-documentarian ability to present seemingly watertight and credible accusations based on clever editing. In one great scene, Peter and Sam attempt to make the case against the other (in their ridiculous pursuit of ‘the truth’, they pledge to leave no stone unturned). After reviewing the footage they cut together, they fall out, having become hurt and upset. They know that they didn’t do it, so why would their friend be such a dick? In this moment, they are confronted with the extent of the recklessness of their endeavour. Turns out, treating people as murder mystery fodder is quite alarming when the crosshairs are turned on you.

The quest to make an engaging and sprawling ‘true crime’ series sees many of these documentarians go to extremely invasive lengths, hoping to uncover something that might advance their career. Under the guise of performing some sort of civic duty in the name of justice, these shows delve - completely uninvited - into people’s histories. Intimate details of people with tenuous connection to the central mystery are dredged up and put on display to be scrutinised over by a baying audience, caught up in the thrill of the chase.

Often deliberately misleading, misdirecting ‘narratives’ are constructed and edited together purely for the purposes of keeping viewers in suspense, as though they were plots in a M. Night Shyamalan film. American Vandal presents a sober case that we are more interested in the spectacle of the ‘true crime’ genre than its consequences, that - with our outsider speculation - we are complicit in reducing serious incidents to fun little distractions and the people affected by them as mere fodder for entertainment, playthings to be consigned to our suspicions and prejudices. Thankfully, because it’s fictional, and really fucking funny, you can enjoy this series guilt-free. 

(Images: Netflix/Tyler Golden)