American Vandal is a Satirical, but Grounded Take on the True Crime Genre

American Vandal is Netflix’s satirical take on the true crime genre. The show pokes fun at its parent company’s Uber successful docu-series Making A Murderer, as well as true crime shows like The Jinx or the podcast Serial.

It’s a funny, but grounded, take on the true crime trend, and there’s no denying that true crime is having its day. From Law and Order: True Crime, Nerdophiles’ podcast fave My Favorite Murder, to the Emmy-winning American Crime Story, it’s about time that a satire make its way into the zeitgeist.

Due to the nature of the crime, the rest of this article will feature some mature language.

The crime at the center of American Vandal is its best ally. No matter what happens in the series, whether it’s dark, sad, or dramatic, it centers around one question: who drew the dicks?

But the show is not just one giant dick joke. Producers Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault wanted to make sure of that when they pitched the series to Netflix. Real actors were hired to portray the high schoolers, the teachers and the adults.

The opening (which is an obvious take on Making A Murderer) even features the student names instead of the actual cast and crew. I’ll admit that I was fully taken by the trailer, thinking it followed a real “crime.” And while the show is about a seemingly light (and hilarious) crime, it’s grounded in its characters and its world, thus giving its audience more than they bargained for when they only came for the dick jokes.

American Vandal follows high school documentarian Peter Maldonado and the alleged vandal Dylan Maxwell. Dylan is without a doubt the burnout-slacker-loser kid everyone knew in high school. The kid who humped trees and drew dicks for fun; the kid who was easy to forget because he was clearly going nowhere. He’s the kid who lived up to his reputation as a walking disappointment.

Was that a harsh assessment? Maybe so, but the show brings that character to life, giving him wants and needs, and making it harder to write off the crime at hand just because he’s an obvious suspect.

What I liked best about the series wasn’t even the “whodunnits” of the crime. It was the look at how the search for the “truth” can be damning to the people who the crime never even touched. Thanks to the conceit of Peter’s naive sophomore experience, we see boundaries that are crossed that and very real consequences.

Each student at some point gets embarrassed on camera. Whether it’s insults, slanders, blow-ups or breasts, everyone’s secrets get revealed. The use of social media is amazing; if not terrifying to those of us who remember a time when teenage mistakes could go undocumented.

It should be no surprise that the worst revelations are left for the girls. Dylan finds out everyone thinks he’s a big idiot; big whoop. But the female characters get their sex lives strewn across the doc yielding much bigger consequences than just the social embarrassment the male characters endure.

Of course, the show documents Peter repercussions, but he deserved much worse than he got. And even though these characters are a fiction, it makes you think, “What would happen if this was real?”

I actually loved the insight into how the documentary empowers its creators, for better or worse. Peter’s search for the truth is punctuated by his own feelings of insecurity, awkwardness, naïveté, and loneliness. He’s the kid in high school who seems so harmless that everyone ignores him. And when he finally gains some social power, he abuses it without thought, or very much remorse. He gives a half-hearted apology for his wrongs, as if his search for “the truth” gives him greater authority than common decency decrees.

But in the end, it’s insights like these that make the show more than just dick jokes. In a nod to the genre, the audience is kept guessing all the way until the end. Maybe we’ll never really know #WhoDrewTheDicks. But either way, it’s worth the watch.