To successfully parody a genre, you have to be a fan of it—and it's clear that the team behind American Vandal has obsessed over its fair share of true crime. A new Netflix show from creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, and showrunner Dan Lagana (Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, an underrated one-season wonder), American Vandal quickly proves to be an effective and often laugh-out-loud funny sendup of the true-crime boom—and, as an added bonus, it's also a pretty engaging high school drama.
Perhaps the biggest key to American Vandal's success is how it takes the most juvenile of crimes and treats it with the utmost gravity. "Who drew the dicks?" is the central question, asked over and over (the phrase "drew the dicks" only gets funnier when occasionally replaced with "did the dicks") throughout the eight mockumentary-style episodes.
The crime is as follows: Twenty-seven faculty cars were found vandalized one afternoon, each one sporting a bright-red spray-painted dick. The immediate suspect is a senior burnout named Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), the sort of guy who disrupts Spanish class for laughs and makes prank videos where he knocks over port-a-johns. He's swiftly expelled and faces criminal charges for the $100,000 in damages—but the evidence isn't quite strong enough, so sophomore (and aspiring filmmaker) Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) takes it upon himself to find out the truth.
"Consider for a moment the type of person who would spray-paint dicks on cars in the staff parking lot," Maldonado intones in voiceover, and not once does the series overtly show its parodic hand. But it does borrow heavily from Making a Murderer and Serial: At one point, the teen investigators even try to recreate the crime to see if it fits within the specific timeline—but they have to ask an older student for a ride, because they're not old enough to drive. It's these little moments that help American Vandal leap from by-the-book parody to actually good television, such as the opening titles that reveal it's executive produced by "Mr. Baxter," referring to a faculty member at the school.
And it's that scholarly setting that really makes American Vandal. True-crime docs are an easy target for parody, but combining it with compelling high school drama elevates the material into a show that you'll want to race through, eager to find out more. Set in the fictitious Hanover High, American Vandal investigates both the students and the teachers, turning a high school campus into a hotbed of suspicious activity (and yes, Peter has a crazy wall connecting everything).
It weaves throughout the social hierarchy and focuses on characters such as Dylan (who can swing from obnoxious to endearing in a single scene) and his prankster group the "Wayback Boys," student president Christa Carlyle (G. Hannelius) who has a protest lined up for everything, and on-the-fringes Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy) who has the high school bravado of a teen desperate to overcompensate. Even Peter and fellow filmmaker Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), who try to remain impartial throughout the whole thing, can't help but let some of their jealousy for the more popular students slip in occasionally (though never enough to be a distraction).
Even as American Vandal weaves in and out of this investigation—conducting serious interviews with students and faculty, depicting the actual consequences that Dylan will suffer if his name isn't cleared (not graduating or going to college), the show never forgets that these teenagers are, well, teenagers. Snapchat videos provide alibis, an Instagram Boomerang is the catalyst for a possibly incriminating breakup, and a major piece of evidence is centered on the specifics of how balls are drawn.
It's a delicate balance: Sure, they use 3D rendering to recreate a handjob—but, to be fair, the handjob is pretty integral to the plot and helps to testify to a potential suspect's character. (It also helps that the students are played with wonderful realism by a handful of young actors, with barely there mustaches, shiny braces, and general awkwardness.)
Sometimes the investigation veers off to the smaller politics of high school: Who is crushing on who? Which teacher actually sucks? Who didn't get invited to that party? Does the extra "y" in "Heyy" mean someone is down to hook up? For the students, these are the big issues, which is most apparent to Alex, whose eyewitness testimony put Dylan at the scene of the crime and provided the basis of Dylan's expulsion. But all of his little social lies (pretending to be friends with a popular kid, exaggerating how many beers he drank) threaten his story, and what's most surprising about American Vandal is how much you'll get sucked into this type of teen drama—I did not expect to go into a dick-themed true-crime parody and find myself shipping two characters, but, here we are.
As is the case with most true crime, American Vandal threatens to unravel Peter as he becomes more and more obsessed with the truth. He pours himself into the docuseries hurting his friends, revealing too much, and even getting Saturday detention. ("I was on the honor roll before this!" he cries out in desperation in a later episode.) But you'll stick with Peter as the series goes on, just as engaged in the mystery as he is. You won't stop watching until you find out who, indeed, drew the dicks.