“American Vandal” proves it’s not a one-case wonder with the excellent Season 2 (Netflix), which again blends juvenile humor on the surface with a deeper layer of observations about human behavior. Whereas Season 1 explored who spray-painted penises on teachers’ cars at a California high school, Season 2 (again eight episodes, although it strikes me as brisker and more tightly crafted) finds teen investigative documentarians Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) – plus a “Netflix” cameraman — traveling to Oregon to uncover the identity of the Turd Burglar.
The Catholic school St. Bernadine is reeling from The Brownout, where numerous students soiled themselves after drinking laxative-spiked lemonade one fateful lunch period. In the 2014 film “Unfriended,” a girl is embarrassed and kills herself after drunkenly pooping her shorts on video. “American Vandal” does a better job of getting the stakes right as it explores not only The Brownout, but other embarrassing things in kids’ lives. Everyone is low-grade embarrassed by what happened to them that day, but they continue to live their lives.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about what people think of them; just the opposite. Even though they all live in an age of one personal, disseminated embarrassment after another, those with shameful moments not yet revealed to the public go to great lengths to maintain those secrets. Season 1 explores how reputation can wrongly color perception, but Season 2 digs into how teens use social media to desperately create an identity, showing that they are complicit in their own victimization. The final episode features a voiceover pontification by Peter, who contends that lives lived in a spotlight don’t make modern youths worse people, it just makes them different from previous generations. It’s a valid point.
But: The villain of the saga also says his piece in the finale, and he’s right too as he synthesizes Season 2’s harrowing condemnation of how social media brings out the worst in humanity. When Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) is suspended from school after his (coerced) confession to being the Turd Burglar, he continues to work at shaping his online identity, as he has essentially been banned from “real life,” relegated to his basement and the nearby convenience store. Tope is excellent, walking a fine line between an annoyingly affected persona (Kevin declares himself “the Fruit Ninja,” deflecting produce tossed his way in the halls) and a genuinely insecure person.
Another memorable performance comes from Melvin Gregg as DeMarcus Tillman, a basketball standout who has the run of the school — which makes him another prime suspect in the Turd Burglar crimes. The writers deliver a spot-on parody of young athletes who believe the cliché that they are proving all the “doubters” wrong because they’ve seen it spouted by NBA stars on “SportsCenter.” Tillman mimics playing the violin after draining shots as some sort of answer to the tune being sung by fictional naysayers. As DeMarcus plays to the admiring crowd, he fails to get back on defense, but not a word is said about that by anyone.
That’s part of the joke, no doubt. As with Season 1, everyone involved understands the tone of “American Vandal.” Sure, the absurdity on the surface is good for a laugh when you hear the premise, and indeed, some moments play to this: At one point, Peter is enthusiastically interviewing a peripheral character about new evidence, and she stops him and says “Wait, what the f*** is a Turd Burglar?”
Peter and Sam are arguably way too into this, as we see from an evidence board that’s jam-packed with photos, Post-Its, push-pins and string; professional timeline graphics that show the dates of The Brownout, the Poop Piñata and the S*** Launcher; and re-enactments that cast a Turd Burglar card being pulled from a wallet like it’s the JFK assassination.
Another source of humor is the immediately recognizable stereotypes: the student who is way more religious than his Catholic school teachers, the guy who has dozens of female friends because they see him as asexual, and the self-explanatory Hot Janitor. The challenge for a show like this is to stay grounded and not run off the rails as it delights in its wonderful silliness. “American Vandal” is always smile-on-your-face funny, but it never feels like it’s trying to be funny.
At the end of the story, that approach allows the closing messages from its villain and its documentarian to have impact. Also giving Season 2 a slight edge on Season 1 is that it definitively solves the crime. No piece of information is left dangling; everything ties together nicely. Rather than just riding the momentum of a good whodunit, the later episodes are the most compelling because of what they say about the characters, the social-media age and human nature.
“American Vandal” Season 2: