Not that it needs spelling out, but American Vandal’s satirical bent is there in the title sequence: “In association with the Hanover High School TV department,” one credit reads, as the camera soars above campus; inlaid with newspaper headlines and crime-scene evidence, embroidered with self-conscious strings, it’s a mocking imitation of the now-familiar form I once labeled the “prestige docuseries.” Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, S-Town, The Keepers: Among the pop artifacts that define the decade we’re in, these long ruminations in the realm of “true crime” may be the most vexing. Dancing nervously with what we might call “the truth,” series that deal in real deaths, and often result in real consequences, approach the blurred border between entertainment and journalism. Some (Serial) forthrightly confront methodological questions; others (Making a Murderer) smooth them over; still others (The Jinx, S-Town) seem to relish their compromised positions, splashing around in nonfiction’s mud as if they were pigs in shit. And yet, for all their differences, the fact remains that each of these shares in the same emerging aesthetic, the set of conventions from which genre takes shape. American Vandal is the tongue-in-cheek antidote: a “prestige docuseries” on the subject of dick-drawing, set on dismantling the form from within.
I say “set on” because I’m not sure it succeeds, at least not in the way I expected. With American Vandal, creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault fashion a mockuseries much thornier than its premise suggests: The crime at its center, hung on “burnout loser” Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) after a pro forma investigation, is the spray-painting of large, red, mushroom-headed members on 27 vehicles in the faculty parking lot, an allegation Dylan denies. (Lest you consider those details gratuitous, the shape of the penises and their fastidious grooming are at one point subjected to detailed analysis.) Inspired by Serial, AV nerds Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) decide that the case deserves further scrutiny, embarking on a project in which the animating question — “Who did the dicks?” — becomes, if not immaterial, then at least supplemental. American Vandal is a high-school drama inside a juvenile Funny or Die video wrapped in a “true crime” parody, filmed with such commitment to the genre it apes that it recalls Rian Johnson’s Brick: It’s equal parts evolution and imitation, and in the tension between the two it discovers one of the signal truths of “true crime,” which is that it’s never exactly true to begin with.
American Vandal’s understanding of the form is impeccable, after all: With dramatic cold opens, floated theories and test cases; interviews, illustrations and re-creations; careful cliffhangers and a Jinx-style hot mic, it applies the genre’s commonplaces to absurd situations with aplomb. It’s a pungently goofy reminder that the history of “true crime” is dominated by “lowbrow” media—pulpy magazines, grocery-store paperbacks, salacious installments of Dateline or 20/20—and that its newfound sense of “prestige” is primarily a function of style. To turn that style on the re-enactment of an “alleged handjob,” prank calls to a 9/11 truther, the dating habits of a football coach, or the chaos of a high-school rager is to strip the machine down to its gears—to expose the techniques by which “true crime” docuseries hide questionable conclusions and even more questionable ethics under the sheen of the “serious” drama. Forgive the pun: This dick-drawing docuseries shows how the sausage is made, and for that it should be applauded.
Whether the mystery it untangles is enough to sustain eight episodes is another matter. American Vandal more or less exhausts the humor of its docuseries send-up by the end of the pilot—the rest of its genre in-jokes are, like the title sequence’s heavy strings, just a form of embroidery. I suspect that the series’ slowest interludes—a red herring involving an answering machine tape, a moment-by-moment account of the whereabouts of a can of paint—are part of the gag, too, though this qualifies as one of the series’ misapprehensions. The real innovation of the “true crime” docuseries is to create space and time for closer inspection, and when the subject is murder or the miscarriage of justice, the result is often extraordinary. There is no more formidable treatment of the reporter’s process than Sarah Koenig’s tortured self-examination in the first season of Serial, no more damning portrait of leading questions than the unbearable interrogations Brendan Dassey endures in Making a Murderer. There comes a point, in other words, at which American Vandal’s freewheeling satire starts to mirror the problem it’s meant to tackle, and it’s the point at which the coded language of style and tone does more to conceal than it does to illuminate.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “What a humorless prig,” and I suppose that’s a fair enough criticism. But it’s unfortunate that American Vandal, following the docuseries it pokes fun at, can’t quite see beyond the tip of its own… nose. Because its most surprising strength is not its satire—which is, in the end, rather low-hanging fruit—but its steady construction of a narrative backdrop more compelling than its creators realize. Call it Fast Times at Hanover High: The series’ promising, underutilized skeleton—one that might have had more prominence with a bit of pruning—is its amusing slice of schoolyard life. American Vandal is at its most hilarious, and at times its most poignant, when it’s dismantling the tropes of another genre: the stoners, the jocks, the mean girls, the nerds. There are neon-bright laugh lines (“Her house is fucked,” one student says, referring to a wild party) and parodic figures (the young, “cool” Mr. Kraz, played to perfection by Ryan O’Flanagan), but in the main, Peter and Sam’s attempt to exonerate Dylan dredges up subtler insights. They debate the meaning of a flirtatious “heyy,” navigate the vagaries of social status, consider the unpredictable motives of people they know for the most part as archetypes, even, at one point, themselves. “I may have had some biases of my own,” Peter admits in the penultimate episode, and they’re not only those of a filmmaker in search of a story. They’re those of a teenager in search of his place.
The humor here is gentler than American Vandal’s framework might indicate, and the decision to belabor the point about “true crime” tends to bury such sensitivities under knowing winks. But in its determination to dig through the innards of two distinct genres, the series underscores the ways in which the form of our stories can both reveal and obscure, depending on the particular circumstances. In its view, any crime might appear worthy of study when painted with the trim of “prestige”—and that’s not enough of a reason, on its own, to pry open the case files with a camera in hand. As Peter comes to understand, returning to the question on which American Vandal begins, even the most thorough docuseries inevitably does an injustice to those it pushes into the spotlight, because there is no form of narrative yet devised that can contain our endless complexities. “State your name and who you are,” he asks Dylan in the series’ opening minutes, and by the time Peter’s finished he’s come to a hard-won truth, one his subject understands from the outset: “That’s a stupid question.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.