Netflix Original “American Vandal”expertly and crudely satirizes the crime documentary

Netflix launched a brand new original series entitled “American Vandal” last month. The online streaming service has always been a minefield of unique and varied content ever since it started creating its own shows back in 2013. Though many of these shows have had a varying degree of success, it’s safe to say that “American Vandal” is a triumph in telling a satirical, absurdist, and emotional narrative while also engaging its audience into its incredibly silly mystery.

For those who don’t know, “American Vandal” is a mockumentary that follows sophomore media student Peter Maldonado, who is reporting on an elaborate prank involving somebody spray painting on twenty-seven cars with phallic images. The students and school board are quick to blame senior prankster Dylan Maxwell, who is later expelled from the school. However, Peter starts to question if he was truly behind the crime, leading to a large investigation to uncover if Dylan was the one behind the vandalism. The result is a crude and absurd, yet oddly intriguing and at times thought provoking look at school life and the way we perceive a student.

Now as someone who is incredibly familiar with crime related documentary shows and is currently a media student, I must say that one of the shows biggest strengths is its presentation. The show’s music, editing, and camera work perfectly captures the style of a crime genre in the vain of “Making a Murderer.” By taking out narrative pieces and comedic elements, this could easily pass as a serious crime show. One detail that I found really interesting was how there were multiple camera’s used throughout the show to distinguish different pieces of evidence. Sometimes they would take vertical camera footage, each with varying degrees of quality, and often times capturing things hidden in the background for the audience to discover later. Not only could these scenes be incredibly difficult to film and coordinate without screwing up continuity, but it also creates a level of authenticity in the production. There’s a segment later in the series where the crew has to film with a hidden phone in their pocket, and there’s a point where the framing cuts off the subject of what their recording.

On a more nitpicky side, I was initially thrown off by some of the interview shots. They’re shot incredibly nicely and on a professional level, helping with the crime documentary vibe. However, this doesn’t match with the fact that these are media students. The show did a great job on many fronts of representing the media landscape and has had gags related to it. A good example are bits where they ask the interviewee’s to put mics through their shirt, creating a level of detail that’s very much appreciated. Yet the camera quality and framing for the interview segments are TV quality, which I found pretty unrealistic for a media student to accomplish. There were also moments, most notably in the last episode, where there were hidden camera’s throughout without any explanation for why they were there or who was filming. Whether this adds to the comedy or detracts from the experience is up to personal taste, but it doesn’t take away the shows understanding of detail and realism throughout the series.

One of the biggest shockers that I found when watched through the series how the show was written. Initially, based on what I saw from trailers online, I was expecting some very low brow satirical humor with very little substance beyond that. What I wasn’t expecting was for me to actually get invested into the mystery. The evidence and layers spread throughout the series makes it something that keeps the viewers guessing, thinking along with the protagonists as they themselves discover loopholes, contradictions, and hard evidence that are meant to prove a man innocent. Later in the series, they call back to earlier pieces of evidence they discovered, tying everything together nicely by the show’s end.

It’s not just the mystery that will keep the audience invested throughout the narrative. Another huge shocker was the surprisingly dramatic undertones regarding side plots and characters. From the start of the series, the show played like a straight comedy and the characters start out as  objects for the conspiracy to move forward, mostly there for one off jokes. Admittedly, the first couple of episodes didn’t fully grab me and I was mostly there for the laughs. It wasn’t until halfway through the second episode that things started to get interesting. Many of the major characters have arcs outside of the main mystery. This not only creates an extra layer to these people outside of one note roles, but it invests the audience further into the narrative. As I watched the show, I started caring more about the characters drama rather than the mystery itself, which is rare for a documentary type show, especially a satirical one. These arcs don’t interrupt the mystery, so it doesn’t become a distraction or padding, even tying to its surprisingly poignant theme towards the end of the series. Peter, for example, could have been written as a blank slate observer of the mystery, but his actions and personality traits have direct consequences on the narrative. He loses friendships, respect from the school, and sometimes makes harsh decisions out of either anxiety or a selfish obsession with solving this case, harming others in the process. Character growth is a key component to the narrative, showcasing a surprisingly well thought out storyline intercut with a satirical investigation aspect.

Being a primarily comedic series, the show utilizes a unique humorous style throughout its run. Much of the humor showcases lowbrow shock humor, often relating to blatant sexual innuendos and vulgar language throughout. However, much of this is presented in a serious, deadpan manner, adding a lot to what could have been cheap shock gags. Eventually, it blends into its world and just becomes a part of the characters. Admittedly, some of the recurring gags got old at times, like the repeated use of a certain phallic image. However, whenever I thought that a gag was tired, they would pull in a surprise that catches the viewer off guard and produces great comedic effect.

Much of the humor, however, is subtle and based around the subplots and character interactions. The humor is blended with the characters and what they say, creating an environment where the comedy comes naturally rather than having gags thrown at the wall to see what sticks. Dylan Maxwell, for example, provides a majority of the comedic relief, mainly attributed to his frat boy-stoner persona. Much of his characteristics, from his often bizarre comments to monotone delivery, provides for a character that pushes the humor forward.

“American Vandal” provides an incredibly unique experience for its viewers in terms of humor and technological prowess. Despite a couple repetitive gags and occasional suspension of disbelief, the show provides a humorous take on the crime documentary genre while also allowing us to get invested in the characters and storyline. You’ll come for the laughs and stay for the thrills. I would rate it a 3 out of 4 stars.