Minor spoilers ahead.
American Vandal, the mockumentary that somehow turned a dick joke into a hit eight-episode whodunit last year, just came back to Netflix for season two. This season takes amateur filmmakers and detectives Peter and Sam (Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck) out of their California high school to an affluent private Catholic school in Bellevue, WA, where they investigate the serial poop-related crimes of someone known only as the Turd Burglar. If you’re hearing about it for the first time, American Vandal might sound like an extended SNL sketch, but it’s so much more than the silly and sometimes gross comedy it appears to be—it’s one of best portrayals of teenagers on TV, and is particularly good at representing teens’ relationships with social media and the internet.
The internet is central to both seasons of American Vandal and the way the showrunners portray social media and tech is not only funny, it’s absolutely accurate and incredibly nuanced. A whole plotline is devoted to Peter and Sam investigating the iPhone “Letter I” bug from last year; later, they pay close attention to the way the Turd Burglar uses punctuation after emojis in Instagram captions, and flag it as weird (which it totally is). When the Burglar starts contacting Peter and Sam, Sam gets angry at Peter for typing drafts of their responses in the messages app, because “you draft in the notes app, everyone knows that, otherwise you see the dot-dot-dot,” referring to how some people might write risky messages in the notes app so the person they’re texting can’t see them typing.
Vandal even explains how code-switching can be a part of teens’ everyday social media interactions. Peter and Sam compare the way that a Black character, DeMarcus (played brilliantly by Melvin Gregg), texts with less or more slang depending on who he’s talking to, and DeMarcus explains he does this to avoid being stereotyped.
Too many shows and movies make the mistake of having their characters interact on the internet in a way that isn’t accurate, both in terms of technical details and behaviour. For example, culture writer Sarah Hagi pointed out the mistakes in the phone conversations in Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, and the AV Club’s Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya reflected on the ham-fisted way The Good Wife used the word “retweeted” in season four, saying “It’s such a small, nitpicky thing, but that piece of dialogue just stood out as so overwhelmingly bad to me, as if the writers were desperately grasping at how teens talk and just decided to throw “retweet” in there.”
Details like that should matter to the viewer because cutting corners when you’re writing plot-driving interactions is lazy. If you’re not going to try and be genuine, then why bother at all? Little missteps like a weird use of the word “retweet” chip away and distract from the story; in a serious moment, it takes away from the drama, and in a funny moment, it suddenly makes the joke feel corny. Just for a second, you’re reminded that you’re watching TV, and the adults writing said TV are completely winging it.
Technology can be hard to write into stories, and writers run the risk of creating a piece of work that will eventually become dated if they name-drop MySpace, Twitter, Snapchat, emojis, etc., because all those things will one day become artifacts of the internet. To truly make it work, showrunners need to embrace not just technical accuracy, but a real understanding of how and why people use the internet.
American Vandal’s technical references, though perfect right now, won’t stand the test of time as we move onto other social platforms in a few years, but its willingness to create sympathy for the way today’s teens and young people survive being the most recorded generation will always strike a chord with its viewers. That’s what makes season two the shit (pun intended obviously). Vandal isn’t interested in criticizing teens for their lives being revolved around the internet because it knows social media is here to stay; instead, it wants to look at how teens’ lives are now entirely informed by hyper-connectedness and a complete lack of privacy. This means something important for the development of young people’s identities, and it needs to be taken more seriously.
Kevin McClain (played by Travis Tope) is the Dylan Maxwell of this season of American Vandal—he’s blamed for the crimes of the Turd Burglar, but like Dylan with the dick drawings, he’s an easy patsy for the real accuser. Kevin is eccentric, pretentious, and a total social pariah because he breaks the rigid ideas of behavioural expectations set by his peers both online and offline. You can’t help but cringe at his tea-tasting YouTube videos or real-life Fruit Ninja game, but maybe you recognize the way he is bullied. While Kevin pretends to be above the bullying, we learn that he’s secretly tormented by the way his classmates treat him on social media, and that’s why he keeps posting weird stuff online—to send the message that he doesn’t care.
American Vandal definitely isn’t a love letter to social media—it also looks at how teens use the internet in ways that can hurt them. Turd Burglar suspect Jenna Hawthorne (Kiah Stern) falls from popularity after the allure of her perfect Instagram is shattered when it comes out that a picture she posted of her with Kendall Jenner was taken at a meet and greet, and the two don’t know each other. Drama student Drew Pankratz (Jonathan Saks), also known as Diapey Drew, becomes a laughing stock after someone leaks photos of him wearing a diaper.
Clearly, social media is a crucial part of American Vandal’s second season story arc, and it represents the technical details with incredible accuracy, however, this show is good because it doesn’t berate teens for the way social media takes up their lives. Rather, it carefully investigates how vulnerable young people are nowadays because of social media. It makes plenty of jokes and throws in details that please those of us who care about the accuracy of such things on TV, but best of all, it’s willing to cut teens a break when it comes to the internet and social media. In our current cultural landscape that often regards teens as stupid, often in tandem with jokes about their reliance on the internet, this line from the closing episode of American Vandal’s second season is heartfelt: “We’re not the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed.”
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