Netflix Now: American Vandal (Reviewed)


The true crime documentary series, a trend that became popular with Netflix’s phenomenon Making a Murderer and the Serial podcast, has proliferated to the point that, like most trends, it was probably due to have a little wind taken out of it.  Trailers for the Netflix series American Vandal have made the series appear to be just that.  From frequent Funny or Die collaborators writer/creator Dan Perrault and director Tony Yacenda, the serious-looking trailers present a mystery that appeals to the 13-year-old in all of us: who spray-painted penises on 27 teachers’ cars at Hanover High School?  If you chuckled at that question, that was probably the point.  But those who take a chance on American Vandal are in for one of the year’s most pleasant and compelling surprises.

The series is presented as an eight-part documentary made by Hanover High School student Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez, Orange is the New Black).  The case appears to be open-and-shut, with known prankster Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro, 22 Jump Street) all but convicted of the immature but costly crime.  But something doesn’t add up to Maldonado, so he ventures on a quest for the truth about the crime, and justice for the seemly wrongly accused Maxwell.  The first episode introduces our setting with just the right touch of goofy humor that such a subject matter needs.  But the more the mystery unfolds, the less goofy the whole premise seems—and that’s a really good thing.

Pink dicks?! I like it. I mean, I like them.

American Vandal, unlike most satires, doesn’t rely on exaggerating the cliches of its source material for cheap laughs.  In fact, it isn’t particularly “funny” at all.  American Vandal plays it absolutely straight, and it works masterfully.  It is a gripping, intricate crime drama with all of the twists and turns one would expect from the documentary series that inspired it.  It is a short (eight half-hour episodes) but effective crime procedural presented in a documentary style, which works far better than playing it cheap laughs ever would have.  The characters for the most part are well-acted and fully formed; the viewer is never sure who they fully trust or believe right through the very end—even the storytellers themselves.

This fearlessness is what makes American Vandal truly great.  Characters do drift in and out as they often do in the real thing, but make an impact that keeps the viewer guessing about what they just saw and crafting theories for what comes next.  Being fiction, it is a bit constricted by being forced at times to stick to a narrative, which a times makes you see a twist coming even if you don’t necessarily know what it may be (and the case of American Vandal, the surprises are many.)  The cast of mostly unknowns plays their roles perfectly, fitting into their roles in the story without somehow ever becoming cartoonish archetypes.  For a series built around a premise of “who drew the dicks?”, American Vandal manages to take itself seriously and be all the better for it.

Things in American Vandal’s world are a bit messy at times, but for a series that tries so hard to get the look and feel of docu-series right it feels like it was done on purpose.  American Vandal feels real, from its editing to its performances to its intricately twisted plot.  More painstaking tribute than goofy satire, American Vandal makes all the right smart choices, leading to one of the most compelling crime dramas(!) of the season.  Now on Netflix, American Vandal is an easy, quick and satisfying binge watch recommended for fans of documentaries, crime procedurals, or just great TV.


-Mike Stec