In Its Second Season, American Vandal Gets Even Smarter
“You think poop is funny?” asks one of the countless truth-seekers in the second season of Netflix’s American Vandal. It’s a question you’ll likely want to ask yourself before diving into the new installment of this crime-doc spoof, which is utterly, disgustingly, full o’ feces: Splattered on walls, plopped onto floors, even hanging in the air. Such gross-out humor may (understandably) prevent you from giving Vandal the top spot on your streaming queue. But the show remains so smart about our behavior-bending love of technology—and so empathetic in its depiction of teenage life—that it at least deserves to be No. 2.
The Peabody-winningfirst season of American Vandal sent up long-form mysteries like Making a Murderer and Serial by aping their slow-burning style: Take a few earnest, inquisitive amateur sleuths; point their cameras in the direction of a (possibly) railroaded criminal; and watch as a tight-knit community’s secrets and lies emerge. In the show’s initial eight-episode run, a team of high-school journalists–led by best friends Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck)–attempt to learn who spray-painted a series of graffiti penises on their high-school grounds.
Given that premise, Vandal could have been lowbrow-despicable. Instead, the show used those ding-dong-stupid crimes as a means to investigate the complicated lives of modern teenagers–their awkwardness, their insecurities, and, especially, their second-screen escapism.
Season two focuses on a smaller cast of anxious young Americans, while going deeper on their online habits and habitats. Vandal opens with a winking bit of meta-narrative: Since we last saw them, Peter and Sam have become minor-league Netflix celebrities, thanks to their hit show. As a result, they’re beckoned to suburban Washington, where a rich-kid Catholic school has been hit by a wave of poop-related crimes, most notably The Brownout, a squirt-inducing horror in which the cafeteria’s lemonade is spiked with laxative. Soon, social media lights up with the name of the perpetrator: @theturdburglar, a gleeful menace who uses his Instagram account to issue warnings and boasts.
The Brownout, like so many of the key events in the American Vandal series, is recounted via a series of smartphone videos, snaps, and Instagram posts. But in season two, those technologies become less of a storytelling mechanism, and more of a cloaking device for the show’s teenaged characters, who use their social-media accounts to spit-shine their high-school images. It's a too-easy joke–one the show makes itself–but in the world of American Vandal, everyone’s online profile is full of shit.
“We’re the first generation that gets to live twice,” one of the young investigators notes, and in Vandal, parts of those lives are often concealed. Many of the show’s biggest plot-twists hinge on the way kids use everything from Twitter to texts to emojis to express themselves–yet only occasionally say what they really feel.
That obfuscation makes it all the harder, of course, to divine the Turd Burglar’s true identity. The initial culprit, Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), is a self-invented outsider who sips high-end tea, wears newsboy caps, and speaks with an affected semi-English lilt. He’s the sort of high-school character rarely seen on screen–as stubborn as Duckie, as shunned as Tracy Flick, and as misunderstood as any teenager you’ve ever known (or maybe may have been).
Kevin’s at once thoroughly unlikable and oddly root-worthy–and, as the investigators soon find out, the case against him isn’t exactly airtight. Their search eventually reaches his classmates, most notably a beloved, Lebron-like basketball prodigy named DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg). If Kevin is the kind of low-key oddball normally written out of high-school stories, DeMarcus is the jock-hero we’ve seen in every teen movie since the Reagan era. But American Vandal slowly reveals DeMarcus’ own fears and struggles, some of which are the result of his outsized online popularity. DeMarcus’ hubris and eventual self-actualization make for the show’s most satisfying storyline, a miniature Poop Dreams.
Because American Vandal is largely the Kevin and DeMarcus show, some of the painfully spot-on adolescent observations of season one–with its hallways full of freaks and geeks and weirdo teachers–are absent. And the tenuous relationship between Peter and Sam, which gave Vandal some reality-rooting tension, is largely unremarked upon this time around. If there’s one potentially juicy aspect of American Vandal that feels unexplored in this second go-round, it’s the sense of follow-up fatigue that affects surprise hits like Serial. To watch Peter and Sam struggle with their own TV-star sophomore year would have been a welcome bit of self-indulgence.
But such slights likely won’t bother most Vandal viewers. If anything, the show’s biggest challenge is convincing viewers to wait out the show’s early onslaught of on-screen colon-blows. The Brownout, which is portrayed in graphic detail in the show’s first episode, is a remarkably choreographed feat of gross-out comedy. But what follows on American Vandal is so keenly observed, so unexpectedly heartening, that it’s worth putting up with all the crap.