American Vandal hits every note of a Serial-style crime drama. The cadence of speech, the patient presentation of facts, the logical baiting to convince the audience that one party is guilty only to pull the rug out with the next piece of evidence. Netflix’s comedy series, whose second season dropped recently, isn’t exonerating murderers or delving into murky military mysteries. Instead, it solves high school pranks: who spray-painted dicks on the teachers’ cars? Who put laxatives in the cafeteria lemonade? Each season is dedicated to solving one such pressing crime. The magic of the show, though, is the comedic gold that is the intersection of super-serious crime reporting with teens being their most recognizably, prototypically teen selves. From creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, the viral hit embraces the best of meta-storytelling and takes it in a new and energizing direction.
Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Fluk) are the modern versions of the Stranger Things kids, holed up in AV club and fascinated by unanswered questions. But instead of monsters and superpowers, what they deal with is Snapchat video, rumor, and an inordinate amount of string on corkboard. Through a combination of Snapchat footage and amateur interviews, the endearing duo stumbles determinedly into the politics of their teachers’ favorites and sports teams’ coverups. With hilarious, on-point writing and characters who demand investment, American Vandal takes the ridiculous and makes it urgent and heartwarming. The kids on the show really come off as kids—albeit ridiculously talented teenaged actors.
The show’s stories couldn’t exist or be presented without the digital lives of the students. The kids live on Instagram. Documentary footage is, for a good chunk of the first season, shot on cell phones or pulled from Snapchat. The semantics of texts—Who uses a period after an emoji? Or, who had and didn’t have the infamous iPhone “I” glitch of 2017?—are serious and substantive.
And that’s part of what makes the show refreshing. Born via Twitter humor and new media trends like hit podcasts, American Vandal takes the digital, uber-exposed, nuanced world of growing up networked and treats it seriously. Not as a fascinated adult outsider, but from the perspective of the kids who have never lived any other way. Daily lives are thoroughly documented. You can observe an entire party in detail without having been there. Every idiotic teenage mistake is broadcast and spun. There’s barely a need for a documentary film crew: a good portion of what Peter and Sam do is compile and analyze footage of what other students amassed in their habitual daily recordings and posts. The fact that a mystery can exist at all is ultimately startling.
Yes, a large part of the show’s comedic payout is essentially: Look at these teens being teens. Familiar themes of biases and jealousies and privileges rear their heads. Each season relies on immortal high school fixtures: the crude prankster, the nerdy outcast, the popular pretty girl. But it’s a rare piece of media in that it allows the kids to take themselves and the unprecedented way they’re growing up seriously. The carefully constructed and complex world of generated online personae are all-important and all-powerful. That’s something we’ve seen before: a generation consumed by its self-produced online world. In American Vandal, though, this networked world isn’t set up as only shallow, juvenile, or indulgent. Rather it’s nuanced, meaningful, immersive, and self-aware. And yes, seriously hilarious.