A new season, a new school, a new prankster: American Vandal is like the true crime mysteries it parodies in almost every way, even riding its zeitgeisty first season into a less buzzy second that may disappoint viewers looking for another riotous comedy coup. St. Bernadine’s, a Catholic high school, has been attacked by weaponized diarrhea in a lemonade-poisoning incident more heinous and humiliating than dick drawings could ever be. And that’s just the tip of the turtlehead in the gross-out follow-up to one of last year’s best new shows. The stakes are higher and the relationships more tangled this season, but don’t expect it to be as funny as its novel debut.
Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda’s American Vandal first applied murder-level seriousness to a harmless crime, taking that imbalance to narrative and comic heights by never stretching beyond its small scope. By drilling down into all the avenues of relatable weirdness that teens navigate regularly in the high school social scene, the series plumbed investigative depths that didn’t need to be gritty to be engaging. Much of that still applies as Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) return—as the show’s most consistent comic element—to battle wits with basketball stars, overly religious students, and the mystery of the Turd Burglar.
That emoji-faced prankster plagues the season and could realistically be any number of the school’s students, faculty, or staff. The delightful swamp of suspects is made even more enticing to search by the show’s decision to cast relatively fresh faces once again, allowing the case to stand on its own rather than breaking the fiction with recognizable actors. This, along with the refusal to prioritize jokes over true-crime mimicry makes the series a meta treat on the level of Documentary Now! while remaining as accessible and addictive as ever for the casual Netflix browser.
No matter where you fall, you’ll be talking about Travis Tope, who, as suspected Turd Burglar Kevin McClane, is the season’s standout. He channels such delightful weirdos as YouTube’s John Jurasek, a.k.a. ReviewBrah, who affects an old-timey radio accent, wears a baggy suit, and reviews beverages (among other things) in a similar style to McClane. He’s an amalgam of all sorts of embarrassing eccentricities that people sometimes substitute for a personality, especially in high school. His character is incredibly specific and perfect, often painful in its details (like Kevin owning an Android, the “superior” device to an iPhone) and tragicomic in the depth of its emotions. American Vandal always tries to understand the “why,” which means that Kevin gets a nuanced treatment like the best documentary subjects—a backdoor character study mired in a shit mystery.
Basketball star DeMarcus (Melvin Gregg, spot-on in a difficult and specific role), dubbed “Mr. Untouchable,” also becomes a suspect after the pair discover his access and special treatment. The amazement with which the series treats its “athletics over education” storyline takes its attempted tone of journalistic objectivity to a broader—almost ignorant—space, where the first handled the social lives of teens with skepticism that didn’t compromise its insight. This season handles the latter only tangentially, through a cyberbullying subplot that delves into the hierarchies of punishment and privilege in a digital space more coherently than its corrupt athletics scandal. American Vandal has always been best when analyzing the specifics of teen life through a true-crime lens, and this season is no different, whether it’s about who had a specific iPhone glitch or what kind of maniac puts periods after their emojis (a “serial killer weird” offense).
This specificity is still delightful when the show gets to it, but the structuring of the plot often assumes that you’re already locked into bingeing, making for sometimes sloppy segments if you only have time for a single sitting. That and the lack of any sublime set pieces akin to those of Season One—attempting to prove a handjob or reconstruct a high school party through its social media record—make this season feel like a bit of a trudge, thanks to fewer formal surprises paying off our dedication. And with Peter and Sam stuck as outsiders, losing the complexities of their superstar status at school, the show also never finds an equivalent reason for us to care who is investigating.
That said, the absurdity it finally embraces leads to some honest, sad, chuckle-frown places, especially towards the middle of the season, when the mystery begins to heat up and the series works through the early hiccups introducing its cast of players. There are teachers reminiscent of the parents in Get Out and plenty of subdued students, like the documentarians’ local host, Chloe (Taylor Dearden), who’s great at capturing small facial expressions, and DeMarcus’ friend, Lou (DeRon Horton), who gets a few great scenes. It’s a lot more subtle than the first season, and even if that dryness only works about half the time, American Vandal still constructs an engrossing mystery steeped in its teenage setting—one that’s funny, in part, because of the season’s commitment to its central gag, even if the shit-bit’s only purpose is to fertilize a more serious story.
Season Two of American Vandal premieres Friday, Sept. 14 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.