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The five stages of watching American Vandal, Netflix’s latest ‘true crime’ hit

Jake Harris

Netflix's latest “true crime” offering, the mockumentary “American Vandal,” looks on first glance like a blatant way to cash in on the recent spate of true crime series that have been  sweeping the nation. But for those willing to look beyond its juvenile premise, there’s a lot to love, and the show has a lot to say about America’s education system and why we watch true crime in the first place.

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Below are the five stages I went through while watching “American Vandal.” By the end, you too will be angry, and will still be asking, “But who drew the d***s?!”

Stage 1: Juvenile interest

Maybe you saw the trailer for the show back when it premiered in August. The YouTube description clearly labels “Vandal” as a “true crime satire” about a high school senior who has been (maybe) wrongfully accused of spray-painting 27 penises on faculty members’ cars.

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But the trailer itself treats this juvenile subject matter with at least as much weight as “Serial,” “Making A Murderer” and “The Jinx” gave its subjects. Sure, maybe it’s funny for a bit. Might be worth a watch.

Stage 2: Actual investment

It only took me one episode to get invested in the saga of Dylan Maxwell (an excellent Jimmy Tatro) and his predicament. He knows he wasn’t in the parking lot at the time of the vandalism, but his alibi (that he was using the restroom at an antiques store, ‘cause he hates using his friend’s bathroom) doesn’t add up. And there’s an eyewitness, Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy) who swears it was Dylan he saw spray painting cars in the parking lot that day. 

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But class clown and known slacker Dylan, as has been pointed out through mining a ton of Snapchat and Instagram footage, is “a known d**k drawer.” And he would have had motive— the Spanish teacher who accuses him has had problems with Dylan in the past. But not everything is as it seems, as school A/V club kids Peter Maldonado (a pitch-perfect Tyler Alvarez, doing his best Sarah Koenig) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) find out while investigating the case for a true crime documentary.

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By the end of the second episode, I was all-in, with theories of my own.

The first rule of parody is that you need to make an excellent version of what you’re making fun of, and “Vandal” creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda have crafted something that skewers its source material while making the pastiche something that stands on its own. Oh, and it’s funny as hell, too, not so much laugh-out loud funny as it is funny with its juvenile tone from the beginning (all of the episode titles are penis puns, of course). There’s also great acting from all involved, especially Tatro, who turns Dylan into a multifaceted character with contradictions and fears, just like a real teenager. 

Stage 3: Maddeningly trying to solve the crime

By Episode 4, Peter and Sam have examined much more than they possibly thought they could have about this case, including the sex lives of many of their students (and teachers), the proper way to draw a penis (pubic hair plays a key part in the investigation), security camera footage, student transcripts, the history of a can of spraypaint and even the motives of the documentarians themselves. “Serial”s pay phone at Best Buy has nothing on this. 

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Speaking of “Serial,” “Vandal” takes some plays directly from that podcast’s book, including an elaborate timeline construction and Sarah Koenig’s stream-of-consciousness questioning. Fans of “Making A Murderer” will notice some nods to that show as well. Perrault and Yacenda go to great troubles to mimic the 3D models of “Murderer,” except they use it to map out a dockside conversation at summer camp that may or may not have led to a sexual encounter between two teens.

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But by the show’s midpoint, everyone is in question, even the janitor. And there’s no clear answer yet.

Stage 4: Heartbreak

As Peter and Sam’s documentary about Dylan goes viral at school, they are hit with a gag order from the principal, which forces them to film off-campus. The last four episodes of the show examine how creating a documentary about people you are close to can break relationships and unnecessarily expose secrets that might not even matter in the long run. Do the students at Hanover High need to know that the queen bee hooked up with the unpopular kid? Does Dylan need to know everything about his girlfriend and her parents, even if it might proclaim him innocent, yet ruin that relationship? And why make a documentary about a seemingly solved case in the first place? And what does it say about us, the viewers, who are holding on and bing-watching this show, waiting desperately for a pat solution that ties everything up neatly, even though “Vandal,” and real life, seldom offers a tight conclusion?

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I won’t spoil the ending, which pulls out all the stops, makes you question Dylan’s character and all but indicts a suspect. But I finished the series with more of a sense of sadness for these characters than I expected. And it left me wondering why we are never content with uncertain endings, in real life and in the media we consume. And while I have my theories on who did it, I am still wondering who actually drew the d***s. Not bad for a mockumentary that many will look at as a one-note premise.

Stage 5: Anger

Once the heartbreak of an ending is over, the real point of “Vandal” sinks in. I’m trying hard not to give anything away, but there is actually something here about America’s education system and the way it rewards high achievers and casts kids like Dylan aside and eagerly makes them scapegoats. The same could be said about the criminal justice system, too, especially after the final stinger at the end. But most of all, it asks the audience: Why do you watch this stuff anyway? What are you going to do about the events you just watched? Should it have even been made in the first place? Are you going to get angry, or complacent?