“American Vandal” is one of the most delightful TV experiments of 2017, but it easily could have been something far simpler. In the parody world, it’s hard to be able to sustain a tribute to (or retooling of) a pre-existing genre or specific piece of work. Most of these riffs pick out the recognizable highlights, build a few-minute sketch around a simple tweak of the formula, and a grateful internet marvels at the accuracy or the strength of the twist.
Netflix’s latest eight-episode series nearly became just that.
“We did ‘30 for 30: Space Jam,’ ‘30 for 30: Rocky IV,’ stuff like that,” explained “American Vandal” co-creator Tony Yacenda told IndieWire. “Dan was watching ‘Making a Murderer’ and he knew I was a huge fan of true crime stuff, and he just had the broad idea for a short, to do a really low-stakes crime and treat it like it’s really serious.”
“Dan” is Dan Perrault, the other figure at the head of what instead became a four-hour deep dive into a fictional high-school documentary.
“When we first came up with the idea, we saw this as potentially a web series with episodes in the ten-minutes range,” Perrault said. “But the more we dove into these characters, we realized there’s a lot more story to tell, and we didn’t want this to be just a tiresome dick joke, so we expanded it to other side stories.”
“American Vandal” follows Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a high school student accused of spray-painting cartoonishly large penises on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot on an ordinary March afternoon. Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), leads an investigation into whether Dylan was capable of the crime, also looking into the potential evidence to exonerate him.
Through Peter’s documentary, the show is able to emulate some of the most iconic crime docuseries of all time, from “The Staircase” to the show’s recent Netflix predecessors, “Making a Murderer” and “The Keepers.” For Yacenda and Perrault, the key was to not only match the visual style of those series and films, but to preserve that same sense of tone, even for an eight-episode comedy.
“It was important for us to allow establishing shots to breathe, or really let interviews linger, that those pauses that you see in the documentary feel very honest and true to the genre. If we were doing the ten-minute version or trying to cram all of this into 90-minutes of content, we wouldn’t really be able to marinate in that,” Yacenda said.
One of the genius elements of “American Vandal” is the way the show covers its bases. No shot is unaccounted for, no piece of video evidence given without a reason for the way that it was recorded or the way that Peter and his filmmaking co-captain Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) are able to obtain it.
“We wanted to really ground this world and to do that we needed to restrict ourselves to scenarios in which there really would be a camera and a logical justification for where it would be,” Perrault said. “All the iPhone videos that you see are actual iPhone videos. We didn’t even touch the audio. You see so often people try to replicate the feel of cell phone video in post, and unless you’re actually using a cellphone or an iPhone, you can tell the way it moves. Obviously it’s gonna move way differently than a RED camera.”
Telling a high-school story without a heavy dose of social media would feel like an incomplete task, so the team also worked tirelessly to format all the Snapchat and Instagram evidence to look genuine. Rather than approach app-based evidence of “American Vandal” from a “How do you do, fellow kids?” perspective, they wanted to use the real thing, even if they had to get creative.
“We were just completely against anything like MySpace or anything like that. We’d rather just blur everything that we can’t get the rights to than create some bastardized version of it,” Yacenda said. “Because of our format, we don’t have to use phone numbers that say 555. We can just blur out some of the numbers and stuff like that as part of the documentary format that allows us to add a little bit more authenticity to the show.”
Even with the focus on keeping “American Vandal” fresh for 2017, the writers still managed to work in nods to true crime ancestors beyond the recent favorites. One sequence involving a pivotal cassette tape recording gave the show a chance to pay tribute to a legendary Errol Morris classic.
“I do love ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and I’ll always think of that tape recorder as one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever saw. That’s what made me love this genre in the first place,” Yacenda said. “We weren’t really reverse-engineering like, ‘Hey, how do we fit in the tape recorder scene?’ We were telling this story of ‘Who drew the dicks?’ and just using true crime documentaries as our toolkit.”
Of course, this devotion to reality doesn’t work without the right performers. Alvarez is one of the show’s perfectly cast anchors, transforming Peter into an investigative journalist, not some mere approximation of one. The look and feel of “American Vandal” feels awfully crisp for a high school production (no matter how much “Executive Producer Mr. Baxter” was involved), but Peter is so devoted to his self-appointed task that you believe he’d pour the better part of his junior year into making something look this good.
“I think the conceit was that Peter Maldonado is just a huge fan of true crime documentaries and he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. That’s why a sophomore in high school is able to produce something as high quality as he is,” Perrault said.
Ultimately, with the flurry of true crime docs as the template, this is still a high school story. So it makes sense that one of the key pieces to the “American Vandal” came from a slightly different kind of TV show.
“On ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ they would tell these completely honest stories in an episode. Once we got into the writers’ room, those were higher level talks, talking about our own high school experience and everything. And then we just ended up just becoming such documentary nerds that we just ruled out fiction in our brains,” Yacenda said. “That was off limits. We were making a real story.”
“American Vandal” is now available to stream on Netflix.