One of the first (and best) jokes in “American Vandal” is a name on a screen: In the opening credits of the series’ show-within-a-show, one of the listed executive producers is “Mr. Baxter.” As a true crime docuseries satire, made through the eyes of a high school student, tiny comic touches like that are merely part of the comprehensive commitment to the bit that makes this series nearly too good to be true. “American Vandal” is that purest form of faithful recreation; a meticulously scripted tribute to true crime pop culture powerhouses. As a result, it’s a series worthy of becoming a phenomenon on its own merits.
For “American Vandal” and its fictional documentarian Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), the crime in question isn’t a brutal killing, but an unavoidable act of public vandalism. On one day in March, an Oceanside, CA high school descends on the faculty parking lot to find that someone has spray-painted cartoonish penises on 27 of the teachers’ cars. Only one student, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), stands accused of the crime. “American Vandal” sets out to determine if he was the mastermind of the plot or if he’s being unfairly punished for his past class clown antics.
Peter and his partner Sam (Griffin Gluck) aren’t just high school students. They’re students of the visual language and rhythms of the recent docuseries boom. Name an on-screen trope and you’ll find it here: an animated timeline of events, a static shot of cassette tape playback, a hierarchical flowchart of the high school’s leadership structure. (There’s even a hilariously explicit 3-D rendering of some character witness evidence that would most assuredly be the work of high school students.)
All of these elements hew so closely to what counterparts like “The Jinx” or “Making a Murderer” do in their respective series that it’s impossible to dismiss this as a hastily-assembled ploy to cash in on their popularity. You don’t need to be familiar with its many references to find the story underneath compelling. (“American Vandal” chooses its fourth-wall breaks carefully: When Peter explains to someone that his project is “kinda like ‘Serial,’” the reaction is priceless and entirely understandable.)
As Peter sets out to answer the (oft-repeated) question of “Who Drew the Dicks?” it leads to a series of simple, subtle jokes that, individually, feel like enough to maybe support a sketch-length premise. Maybe it could even sustain a half-hour parody similar to what “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” attempted earlier this year. But the true wonder of this series comes from the ideas that these jokes, when carefully stacked on top of each other, build out a fully realized high school environment that serves as a high school chronicle. There’s just as much intrigue and interpersonal tension here as in any other school-set TV dramas that don’t involve archival footage or talking head interviews.
As the web surrounding Dylan’s fate gets filled out with a bevy of richly drawn side characters, they extend from his core group of fellow pranksters, known as “The Wayback Boys,” to rivals like his main accuser Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy) to a variety of school staff members who each have their own opinions on the student body. “Cool teacher” Mr. Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan) is the closest the show flirts with out-and-out parody, but he’s a prime example of how Dylan and Peter are far from the only players in this mini-saga who get a comprehensive arc as the investigation plays out.
There’s an incredible sense of authenticity because none of the performances seem over-the-top (even the ones that seem a little outrageous serve a story purpose in the end), and none of these scripted moments feel overly staged for a cheap laugh. By the end, the humor comes from how much the audience has invested in these characters as people rather than the butts of a format. With the liberty to guide the story in whatever direction they choose, “American Vandal” gets the best of both worlds.
Dylan may be a lumbering doofus, but the show never loses sight of the fact that this is a story of a student who faces serious consequences: expulsion and the loss of a potential scholarship. There’s more on the line for him here than just image rehabilitation. Jimmy Tatro plays the role with as much relish for Dylan’s vulnerable side as he does for his inane YouTube pranks, one of which — incorporating a specific food item — is sheer stupid bliss.
As Peter, Alvarez nails that fine line between self-importance and empathy that many of these front-and-center documentarians have, both in his voiceover cadence and in his on-camera confrontations with sources of new evidence. Alvarez helps Peter’s gradual swings between voice of reason and compulsive truth-seeker fall in line perfectly with the Jareckis and Lestrades before him.
The show also stays true to the kinds of ways that someone like Peter would tell this story, through Snapchats and hashtags and Instagram posts. Even the handheld camera usage at different times feels like the nervous handiwork of a video production club student still getting the hang of this live reporting thing. As the stewards for this project, Peter and Sam are drawn as high school idealists who still can’t help but indulge a handful of teenage boy preoccupations. Their fascination with “Who Drew the Dicks?” occasionally bleeds over into which student is hooking up with who and the finer points of Dylan’s whiteboard illustrations, both showing that even though they may be skilled for their age, they still are their age.
For a satire like this, eight episodes is an ambitious amount of storytelling to fit into the framework. By its end, the way that the documentary unfolds still stays true to the on-camera restrictions, even if the show has to get a little cute in how it conveys the story in different ways. (Mr. Baxter must have called in some favors for Hanover High to nab some of this sweet drone footage.)
But like any good investigation worth spending time with, co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault and showrunner Dan Lagana spend their time establishing a logical through-line for all of the suspects and documentarians. It has a clear idea of what holds utmost importance in the lives of these high school students, so that a film made by one of them would be concerned with those same issues. In that way, “American Vandal” doesn’t become a condescending exercise, either. It’s acknowledging that young people can care about important things and have an impact on the truth, even if their pursuits are framed from a slightly different perspective.
The show’s level of sophistication also extends to what happens when a documentary like this takes on a life of its own. As subjects come to question their involvement and Peter and Sam second-guess their own motives, “American Vandal” isn’t just as a dutiful reworking of these storytelling devices. It’s an indirect look at why they capture our attention so easily and the ramifications for those people whose lives become entertainment for others.
“American Vandal” frolics through the Docuseries Uncanny Valley and comes out the other side with a loving appreciation of everything that makes these stories so captivating and culturally iconic. Sophomoric at times, but painstakingly constructed throughout, it’s a thrilling mystery that feels true — from start to finish — to the real-life stories that inspired it.
“American Vandal” premieres September 15 on Netflix.