[Editor’s Note: The below interview includes spoilers for “American Vandal” Season 1.]
When you think about it, “American Vandal” could have only ended one way. Like its many docuseries predecessors, the question of Dylan Maxwell’s (Jimmy Tatro) innocence or guilt may have powered the story forward, but as the show fleshed out characters like amateur sleuth Peter Maldonado, his partner in videography Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), or the multitude of students and teachers who make this universe, there was always room to make the season’s ending something less tangible.
In the farewell episode, Twitch-based evidence leads Dylan to be exonerated in the minds of Peter and the school powers that threatened his expulsion in the first place. But if Dylan wasn’t the one who drew the dicks, who was?
For fans of true crime documentaries, “We may never know” isn’t just an appropriate answer, it’s the only one that made sense for a series that pays tribute to the classics. Even though “American Vandal” co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault have their certainties, the ambiguity was always part of the show’s design.
“In the real world, you never know for sure a lot of the time. The way we described it is that Peter’s probably 90 percent sure he knows who drew the dicks,” Yacenda said in an interview with IndieWire. “Now, Dan and I are 100 percent sure, but I like that we live in a world where our documentarians are kind of unreliable narrators and can’t be 100 percent sure.”
Though Peter may not be convinced about who’s responsible beyond a shadow of a doubt, there was a concerted effort to make “American Vandal” more than just a series of red herrings or build up to a shattering reveal.
“I like that device in certain mysteries and everything, but once you start introducing that, the audience feels like they’re watching a scripted narrative mystery as opposed to the language of documentary, which they don’t just put in red herrings that they’re going to resolve a few episodes later. I think we just had great format,” Perrault said.
The authenticity of the ending stretches beyond the final minutes, when Peter puts forth his convincing hypothesis of who might have been behind the vandalism. It extends to the lasting impact this saga has on the other characters caught in the crosshairs.
The high school characters in this series (like Mackenzie, whose tearful pleas at the end of Episode 7 help to add the final emotional layer to a growing story) face a unique set of challenges on their own. And then there’s Mr. Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan), the obligatory “cool teacher” character whose early on-camera interviews leads to a believable, abrupt and entirely justifiable unemployment.
All of these late-season developments help to underline the idea that events in this self-contained docuworld still have consequences. It required a leap of faith from the production side, too.
“You’re gonna watch Kraz in the beginning and think, ‘Huh, he’s a little big. I could see he’s kind of performing for the camera like David Brent does in “The Office,’’ or something like that.’ But if any teacher really said that, he would get fired right away,” Yacenda said. “We win you back later on when he’s like, ‘Well, I said some things I shouldn’t have said,’ and he’s fired and you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess this is a real world.’ There is that guy who would just like say stuff to the camera and not realizing it would go viral.”
Given the critical and audience response to the show and Netflix’s propensity to renew successful comedies (which they’ve already done with “Glow” and “Dear White People” in the past two months alone), Season 2 of “American Vandal” isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Yacenda and Perrault are tight-lipped on plans for now, but whether it’s on new installments of “American Vandal” or their other doc-adjacent projects, there’s plenty of world left to explore.
“I know there’s just so many documentaries that I love that have different tones and styles. I’d be super excited to pull from that, from an existing wealth of tools that we can use that we haven’t yet,” Yacenda said.
And because no good mystery show isn’t complete without testing a few theories, we asked the two co-creators about a pesky detail lurking in one of the early episodes. When the crew goes to investigate the logistics of the summer camp, Sarah Pearson’s hand-carved hookup list includes the initials “PM.” Could this maybe be a secret nod to Peter Maldonado, effectively changing our perception of everything we see over these eight episodes, including that final party confrontation with Sarah? The guys say no.
“I wish that was something we did purposely,” Yacenda said. “Peter’s, in my mind, very comfortable behind the camera, but I don’t think he’s very comfortable talking to girls or anything. That’s our version.”
Well, there’s one mystery solved.
“American Vandal” is now available to stream on Netflix.