Lukewarm Takes: American Vandal, Season Two (2018)
I loved the first season of Netflix’s high school based true-crime satire American Vandal. But it worked so well as a self-contained unit that the idea of it continuing beyond one story, at once puerile and profound, never occurred to me.
It’s a minor miracle that something that what was at once a pitch-perfect parody of obsessive true-crime exposes like Making a Murderer, The Jinx and Serial, a wryly funny, deeply observant comedy about the wonder and horror of being a teenager and mischievous drawings of dongs held together as beautifully as it did.
The second season of American Vandal ratchets up the scatological humor to literally stomach-churning levels. Let’s just say that eating dinner while watching it proved to be a poor choice. You need a strong stomach for poop-based horrors in order to make it through the season’s eight episodes but you’re rewarded with some of the most sophisticated, textured and ultimately haunting and heartbreaking comedy about a series of shit-related assaults on the noses, anuses and delicate sensibilities of a terrified and traumatized high school community in recent memory.
The second season of American Vandal finds its duo of intrepid filmmaker-investigators,who are the human equivalent of listening to NPR while sipping a Pumpkin Spice latte on a Fall afternoon lending their intertwined talents for mystery-solving and elucidating the complexities of the human condition to the juicy and super-gross case of a series of poop-based, deeply odious (in every conceivable way) pranks so destructive and traumatizing to everyone afflicted that they border on acts of gastrointestinal and olfactory terrorism.
In the most devastating of these feces-based affronts on propriety, dozens of students are dosed with a powerful laxative that results in a nightmarish tableau of helpless teens doubled over with gastric distress, helplessly and explosively defecating in their clothes, soiling their under garments as they desperately and hopelessly try to find a free toilet before they soil themselves in a humiliating public frenzy of unhinged and explosive defecation.
It’s a testament to how simultaneously disgusting and artful The American Vandal is that the show is able to generate a real sense of horror and anguish out of what is essentially a whole bunch of people pooping at the same time, the sobbing, overwhelmed victims of a malicious prankster who compounds his crimes by bragging about them on social media under the pseudonym The Turd Burglar.
American Vandal keeps returning again and again to this image of mass confusion and horror in ways that get funnier and funnier but also increasingly horrifying and sad. This is no mere prank. It’s more like “Guernica” only with the horrors and bleak absurdity of war replaced with the much greater horrors of not being able to control your bladder and defecating wildly in view of your peers and a disgusted world.
But that stinky assault on the social order is just the beginning. It’s followed up by a pair of sneak attacks on the noses and comfort of a student body being punished for some unknown transgression by a mad mystery prankster with an all too vivid and malevolent imagination. In one, a “Shit Launcher” shoots out cat shit on the unsuspecting kids at a basketball rally instead of the expected tee-shirts. In the other, a “poop piñata” unleashes a river of excrement instead of candy after being bashed open with a stick.
These events have the same chilling effect as acts of non-shit-based terrorism: they create fear and uncertainty, dread and paranoia as mortified survivors of these quite literal shit shows live in mortal terror that another attack could strike at any moment and everything in a Catholic private school will very dramatically go to shit.
The chief suspect in this crappy crime spree is Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), an outcast, EDM performer, tea and horchata enthusiast and all-around misfit who never quite got over being cruelly nicknamed “Shit Stain McClain” at some point in his traumatic adolescence. In high school, he's known as “The Fruit Ninja”, a cruel, weird, absurdist nickname he’s tried to own and co-opt without much success.
Like all teenagers, Kevin is an insufferable prick. He’s terrible to his mother. He’s a twee exhibitionist, a narcissistic eccentric full of twee affectations and foppish disdain for a world that does not understand his peculiar non-genius. But he’s also a figure of considerable depth and complexity. In his fierce need to be loved and accepted, he is all too relatable. And while he’s a figure of mockery to much of the student body, his social life and his social standing are both complicated and contradictory. He has friends and an EDM act called the Horsehead Collective who perform bad electronic music while wearing horse masks. He’s handsome but he’s one of those people whose personalities make them less attractive.
He contains multitudes, in other words. He defies easy categorization and stereotypes. He’s defiantly, poignantly himself. The same is true of one of the other biggest suspects in the poop crime wave, DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), the school’s strikingly handsome star basketball player, a cocky, brash popular kid with an easy, dazzling smile and a future of boundless promise as a college or professional basketball player.
Social-wise he is an a much different, even antithetical place than Shit Stain McClain without being terribly dissimilar from him at all. He's friends with everyone but if you’re friends with everyone then you’re really friends with no one. For all of his blinding charm and charisma, there’s something fundamentally lonely and sad at the core of Gregg’s performance. He’s a hallway politician who can never turn it off, who is trapped in the position of having to entertain and perform for his public whether he wants to or not. In American Vandal, Gregg’s hilarious and heartfelt performance captures the strange loneliness of being the most popular and envied person in the room yet feeling unknown and unseen.
The genius of American Vandal is that it understands like few other movies or TV shows or books about young people just how unfathomably complex the social codes and emotions of teenagers are, how they’re more complicated and intense than the relatively muted adult world. American Vandal gets deeper and sadder and more sprawling as it proceeds and the suspects being to pile up along with evidence of a fourth poop-based transgression, this time directed at teachers rather than students.
I really wish that Entourage had not won a Peabody because that single-handedly dragged down the value and prestige of the award considerably. I feel bad for people who win a Peabody now because they have to live forever with the knowledge that Entourage won the same award they did. Entourage’s Peabody undeservedly makes American Vandal winning a motherfucking Peabody for an investigation into the drawing of dongs less impressive. It’s still pretty goddamn impressive, however, and speaks eloquent volumes about the masterful way American Vandal juxtaposes the highbrow and the absolutely disgusting.
Visually and tonally, American Vandal perfectly replicates the stylistic tics and cliches of the true crime boom epitomized by Serial and The Jinx but in terms of its world-building and its immersive nature I was reminded throughout of Twin Peaks and Rian Johnson’s riveting, slangy, purposefully semi-impenetrable high school noir detective mystery Brick.
American Vandal is plugged into the cultural zeitgeist without being obnoxious about it. Technology figures very prominently in the proceedings in a way that accurately reflects the central role social media, iPhones and texting play in high school students’ lives and how they reflect the soul-crushing emphasis on popularity that has long been a defining feature of high school culture instead of feeling shoe-horned in.
Social media has given bullies powerful new tools and platforms to perform their dark magic. That alone is reason enough to at least contemplate ending them for the betterment of humanity. A radical step, I know, but one that might be necessary. I know that after the five months or so of debilitating withdrawal I will inevitably suffer, I will emerge from the other side a better, saner and less compulsive man.
American Vandal is full of killer details that bring its world and its lovingly conceived and executed characters to life, like the poop piñata occurring during “Vonnegut Day”, a celebration of the late author’s life and philosophy held by a teacher who is very enthusiastic and full of ideas to inspire her children that are heartbreaking rather than inspirational.
The second season of American Vandal is a bracingly smart exploration of some seriously sinister shit. It’s shitty and great, but not necessarily in that order.
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