By Jesse Melia
On paper, it shouldn’t work. American Vandal essentially sends up the recent trend of serious, investigative docu-dramas that are all the rage on Netflix. In the vein of shows like Making a Murderer and The Jinx, it’s a detailed and comprehensive investigation of a controversial crime. Only the crime is that a high school student drew penises on the cars of the school’s faculty.
That’s a funny idea, an idea that would work well as a YouTube sketch, but not for a feature length film, or an eight-part TV series you’d think. And yet, Vandal manages to defy expectations because it actually doubles down on the absurdity, and fully immerses itself in the case with detached journalistic seriousness, which to heightens the comedy.
The show isn’t laugh out loud hilarious, but it has a persistent humour that runs throughout. The jokes stem from the sheer absurdity of the situation and the high school’s range of awkward and amusing characters.
It manages to balance the humour with a genuinely engrossing mystery. You wouldn’t expect to be so emotionally involved in a case as absurd as this, and somehow the show manages to draw you in and make you invested in the story.
What really elevates the series is that it has surprising dramatic heft. As the story progresses, you really start to empathise with the lead character, the titular vandal Dylan Maxwell, as the stakes and consequences of his alleged criminality come to the fore. Other standout characters are the slithering and deceptive Alex Trimboli, and the intensely inappropriate ‘cool’ teacher Mr Kraz.
The actor portraying Maxwell, Jimmy Tatro, got his start making short, funny YouTube videos, and he definitely makes use of that skill set as the child-like and dopey high schooler. But he also gives a performance of surprising emotional depth, especially later in the show’s run as the stakes and seriousness rise.
If you’ve seen Making a Murderer or The Jinx, or even listened to the Serial podcast, you’ll recognise how expertly the team behind American Vandal have satirised the ascendant True Crime genre. It has the super slick, weighty presentation; dramatic, cinematic music; and the straight-laced, serious narration. Again, the fact that it’s presented in such a po faced manner, serves to elevate the show’s almost absurdist humour.
In the classic Netflix mould, the show is maddeningly addictive. Season one is comprised of eight punchy, compact thirty minute episodes. And it’s loaded with little plot twists and cliffhangers that continually draw you in. It’s the kind of show that a lot of viewers will burn through in one or two sittings.
So if you’re having a late night decompress after college, or a lazy hungover Sunday afternoon, American Vandal is definitely a case that’s worth opening.