There’s a tradeoff happening in Season 2 of “American Vandal,” but it’s not the one you might expect. Sure, gone are the cartoonish, spray-painted penises on the sides and hoods of Hyundai Elantras. What takes its place is a prank of even larger proportion, done in another joke genre that makes it hard to describe without some creative euphemisms. It may take a little longer to get there than last time, but this new season becomes a worthy follow-up by not only swapping out one anatomical gag for another, but by filing off some of its goofier edges for another grounded look at the other daily challenges of high school life.
The opening to this newest season-long faux documentary is a truly horrifying overview of an event at St. Bernardine, a private Catholic high school in Washington. Some cafeteria subterfuge results in a schoolwide case of diarrhea so violent, it earns its own nickname: “The Brownout.” One student is charged with the “poop crime,” but another of their classmates enlists fledgling documentary legends Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) to make the trip from the Greater San Diego area to prove their sleuthing bona fides in the Pacific Northwest. Their task is to find the true identity behind “The Turd Burglar,” an Instagram account that not only claimed credit for The Brownout, but made an online record of every student who’d fallen victim.
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Season 2 wisely clarifies a few things right up top, namely some of vaguer details about Peter and Sam’s specific relationship to Netflix. Aside from explaining how a pair of high school juniors could afford aerial drone shots of their school, this round of “American Vandal” is more aware of the outside world than it was before. The show’s never been afraid to bring the specificity of social media into its story, but a few extra pop culture benchmarks slip through this time. A handful of these choices (including the casting of DeRon Horton, who some viewers may recognize from “Dear White People”) threaten to crack the careful illusion that the show’s created. But whenever it teeters on the edge of going too broad, it pulls back just in time.
There’s some slight shaky footing early on as the show hovers between what it used to be and what eventually becomes. Navigating the new ground rules for how much recap conversation to give makes for some extra time at Peter and Sam’s new evidence wall home base (this time in a St. Bernardine student’s living room). There’s also an exponential increase in doc-style recreations this season to deliver vital parts of the story. Almost as ominous as Instagram stories from the Brownout itself, they’re still subject to the same pitfalls of repetition as “The Keepers” was.
But by putting Sam and Peter in unfamiliar territory and making the series a different kind of personal project for them than determining Dylan Maxwell’s guilt or innocence, “American Vandal” taps into a different emotional frequency. One of the bigger jokes of Season 1 is that the car prank was a victimless crime. Putting those parking lot shenanigans on par with a capital offense seemed ridiculous at first, before the show gave way to something deeper. Aside from a couple of new paint jobs, the bigger set of consequences centered on Dylan’s place in the aftermath, facing expulsion and a revoked scholarship.
This time around, with students in physical and psychological distress, there’s an overarching sense that this is a more severe act with a more dire fallout beyond that of the school’s plumbing system. One Instagram comment in the opening credits even reads, “People could have DIED!”
So there’s a slightly thicker blanket of melancholy that exists over the pursuit of The Turd Burglar. Part of that comes from the pathos behind Kevin McClain, a precocious outsider that soon comes in the investigation’s crosshairs. Dylan Maxwell revelled in his own buffoonery, but there is a serenity and calmness in how Kevin tries to ingratiate himself with Peter and Sam, all while maintaining his innocence. Travis Tope’s performance pinpoints where joke meets affectation, wearing Kevin’s vocal flourishes with a real comfort, despite his character’s palpable awkwardness.
Aside from Peter and Sam (and executive producer Mr. Baxter, in case anyone was afraid that he wasn’t going to somehow go unacknowledged in the credits this time), the main connective tissue that keeps this season both distinct and of a piece with the show that preceded it is an unusually strong ensemble. Whether in the quick, straight-to-camera testimonials or in the social media snippets we get through quick Snapchat videos from around campus, this collection of actors and actresses build out a rich, compelling school environment one or two sentences at a time. The teacher involvement isn’t as strong (if anything, Mr. Kraz leaves behind a much more notable vacuum than Dylan does), but the show’s greatest strength in its initial eight episodes is the same in this new batch.
From Kevin outward, this show has an unmistakable ability to identify what means most to a student body in time of crisis. “American Vandal” assembles another group of students that slide right into long-established archetypes, but are always afforded a few extra character shades that let the show build out from a familiar center. Cutting to the core of all of these kids’ perceived identities (“theater kid who lives in the Friend Zone” is one particularly sharp blade), it’s able to cultivate a large list of suspects and witnesses that keep this mystery from being solely dependent on the final answer of who is responsible.
Even though #WhoDrewTheDicks made a for a fantastic piece of viral shorthand, answering that question was never as important to the quality of the series as how these students lived their lives outside the confines of that mystery. Without revealing whether or not this season wrestles with that same bit of ambiguity, Season 2 eventually reaches the heights of the series’ best moments by finding other truths about the modern American high school experience. The mystery is a helpful propeller, but what shines above the surface is a well-built vessel for jokes, stylistic mimicry, and social commentary, all in one.
There’s a tantalizing thread through the early part of Season 2 that hints at another way that “American Vandal” might have headed in a different direction. Bringing in “actual” talking-head specialists in various academic fields to speak to the situation is used more as a way to explain connecting threads than build out the world or the severity of the incident it exists in. If the show ultimately discards that new layer, it’s to show that in this created documentary universe, teenagers are still the ultimate experts.
They’re at the vanguard of a society that still doesn’t know how to cope with the idea that being tagged in an Instagram post about The Brownout could be even worse than living through it in the first place. So “American Vandal,” when faced with the challenge of living up to its own impossibly high standard, the response isn’t to simply copy its successes. It paints a picture of how students can feel unsafe, out of place, or otherwise plagued by uncertainty, even if their school uniform stays clean. It might trade in a few of its old laughs for something slightly different, but it’s still a wonderful little miracle that this show can exist at all.
“American Vandal” Season 2 premieres Friday, September 14 on Netflix.