[Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the ending of “American Vandal” Season 2.]
What’s the key to crafting an effective close to an eight-part season, one that not only delivers a logical conclusion to its central mystery while delivering an insightful message about all the players involved?
As the team behind “American Vandal” can attest — having now done it twice — part of the secret is finding the best possible people to be in front of the camera
“It’s very important to us to not stunt cast because we don’t want faces to take us out of the world, but when you get into actual casting, it really just does become who had the best audition and who’s the most real,” series co-creator Tony Yacenda told IndieWire. “That’s what DeRon [Horton] and Taylor Dearden and Travis Tope did. These were people who we felt were the most honest version of the characters. The most important thing is to get the best actors.”
While the core ensemble of Season 2 may have had a few more recognizable faces than the Hanover High crew, they were still able to identify the reality of their circumstances underneath the “Turd Burglar” intrigue. Tope, as St. Bernardine misfit Kevin McLean, puts a human face to the consequences of bullying. Meanwhile, Melvin Gregg’s performance as DeMarcus Tillman helps illuminate a struggle that many student-athletes face: being commoditized, lauded, and put above reproach in relation to the rest of the student body.
“The core of this season is this A or B, Kevin McLean and DeMarcus Tillman, two people that are on opposite ends of the social hierarchy,” Yacenda said. “You grow to find out they share similar insecurities and vulnerabilities. Really making DeMarcus’ character realistic, we looked at St. Vincent-St Mary, LeBron James’ school in Akron, Ohio that would recruit players and bring people. We wanted to fully explore the idea of a character who looks like he’s the king and everybody loves him, but because he’s treated differently by everyone, he feels somewhat tokenized and ultimately somewhat lonely and vulnerable and isolated.”
That case study also came from the fact that this season’s story was taking place at a Catholic private school. While there are some things like the nun giving her own testimony of “The Brownout” and its aftermath, setting this at a church-affiliated school had more to do with just having clergy on the faculty.
“One major factor in choosing a private school, not just a Catholic school, but a richer private school is that if you’re trying to raise the stakes, picking a place that has a long history of pride and privilege was one where a prank like this would have its greatest effect,” series co-creator Dan Perrault said. “This isn’t a SoCal public school where a few dicks happen and it’s a small, local uproar, but nothing major. Donors are pulling their donations and parents are pulling their kids from the school. So that kind of environment is one in which you could really buy certain students being protected over others. So I think it just made for better stakes in my opinion.”
Scott Patrick Green / Netflix
While none of them are revealed to be the season’s “Turd Burglar” menace, both Kevin and DeMarcus played instrumental parts in helping the string-pulling culprit carry out a series of malicious (and in some cases, dangerous) crimes.
Even though the team behind the show hasn’t been shy about the fact that they have a very clear idea who was responsible for the parking lot shenanigans of Season 1, there was still something wonderful about how the first season ended on a note of ambiguity. It was a decision that felt faithful to the genre in the best ways, giving Peter the chance to draw a conclusion without answering every last question about the incident.
Season 2 offers a far more definitive answer to how the four “poop crimes” were carried out. Instead of closing the season with looking at the nature of the truth and justice, the final episode (“The Dump”) ends with a poignant reflection on the specific dangers that face a hyperconnected generation. As Peter says in his final statement, “We’re not the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed.”
“It speaks to the theme of masks and changing our persona through social media that it’s something that adheres to someone like DeMarcus as much as it does more blatant cases like Kevin. So we wanted to make sure that in our final messaging that we made it clear that we all sort of form different versions of ourselves on social media. It’s not just an isolated case,” Perrault said.
In case the finest fictional high school documentarian of our time isn’t enough of an expert in this field, Season 2 also drew on the real world in a different surprising way. The professors discussing issues of false confessions and code-switching in the season’s first half were real-life academics discussing their respective fields of expertise.
“We gave them fake names for legal reasons,” Yacenda said. “We scripted questions, but the answers are completely unscripted coming from real experts.”
“I think stylistically, having those interviews really helps audiences to process this like a mystery or an actual true crime,” Perrault added. “In Season 1, the first 10 minutes are very dick-joke heavy. Then you have Dylan’s mother come in and talk about how crushing this has been to their family and it resets the audience. I think in Season 2, the thing that did that was the experts and really getting people back on track into thinking of this beyond just an obvious poop joke.”
Scott Patrick Green / Netflix
Aside from those adult experts, they also looked at real-life examples of high school experiences to find the universal kind of characters that people from many different school backgrounds could all relate to.
“There’s plenty to draw from. Without revealing which kids that we scoured, there are plenty of references on YouTube of kids who, unfortunately people have put a cell phone in their face and they acted the way they did,” Perrault said. “And we drew from personal experiences. I think we all had a Kevin and a DeMarcus. We all had different versions of Kevin and our school, but they all came from the same place of someone who couldn’t fit in with the mainstream crowd. So they act as though they were actively choosing not to. And that comes in many different forms.”
“I think we’re always listening,” showrunner Dan Lagana said. “We’re always reading and always listening and we have so many sources that we reach out to and try to make this as authentic as possible. We’re always scouring Reddit and talking to people. The goal is ‘real.’ So any avenue that leads to someplace real, we’re going to head there as fast as we can.”
With a massive tonal and stylistic shift in Season 2 (that began with “The Brownout” in more ways than one), the precedent has now been set for future seasons to venture even further from what the series has already accomplished. In the meantime, Season 2 offered plenty of examples of characters who at the very least are fun to imagine outside of the confines of Peter and Sam’s documentary.
“I’m ready to do the Hot Janitor spinoff,” Yacenda joked. “I think he had an appropriate amount of screentime in the season, but we had so much fun shooting him.”
While no concrete news about Season 3 has been announced yet, Perrault said that he has at least one idea that might make its way into future ideas. And as much as some audiences tend to talk about documentaries as one giant genre blob, there are still plenty of stylistic angles another edition of “American Vandal” could employ.
“You can’t pull from everything, so there are going to be a lot of documentaries that we still haven’t dipped into,” Yacenda said. “I don’t think that’s ending anytime soon. There are so many great documentary films that continue to come out that we haven’t been able to use some of their tools yet.”
“We don’t pull any punches. Everything we wanted to throw in Season 1 we threw in Season 1. Everything we wanted to throw in Season 2 we threw in Season 2. The beauty of this show is that we’re going to constantly challenge it to evolve, with new toolkits for new ideas and new themes and I’m excited to explore what’s next because it will be nothing we’ve done yet.”
“American Vandal” Season 2 is now available on Netflix.