Dan Jacobson reviews the second season of Netflix’s most binged show of 2017, American Vandal
The first season of the Netflix original true-crime mockumentary American Vandal was unlike any TV show I had seen before. A satire of staples of the true-crime genre, namely Making A Murderer and the podcast Serial, the show followed two high school students, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, who investigate the case of spray-painted penises on the teachers’ cars. American Vandal was hilarious in how deadly seriously the students took the vandalism, despite long discussions of “hairless nutsacks” and summer camp hand jobs. However, like the other shows, it also provided a strong critique on the institutions that we would hope to be the most just (for Season 3 of Serial, it was announced that they would scrap the single-crime nature of the podcast altogether, instead focusing generally on stories from the courthouses of Cleveland, Ohio).
When it was announced that Season 2 would move from “who did the dicks” to who spiked the lemonade, causing school-wide diarrhoea, there was always the suspicion that this would simply be a rehash of the algorithm applied to Season 1. Whilst it was almost perfectly executed, that didn’t mean it would work so effectively a second time round. However, I was optimistic: the creators were clearly far too smart to fall into a trap like that.
Season 2 focuses on a vandal known elusively as the ‘Turd Burglar’, who terrorises a prolific Catholic school by placing laxatives in the lemonade. He posts about his actions on social media, and tags everyone at the school in these images and videos. Like in Season 1, one student, the somewhat “adorkable”, somewhat pretentious, Kevin McClain, is hastily assumed to be guilty, fuelled by the school’s necessity for answers, and is forced to confess.
Whilst Peter and Sam feature again as the key investigators, Season 2 immediately feels a little different to Season 1. The first few episodes moved slower, dedicating most of the airtime to Kevin McClain and star basketball player DeMarcus Tillman, whereas Season 1 made use of a sprawling cast of characters who, at least initially, created a far more intricate story early on in the season. Both stories are intriguing, but it is in the final half of the season that the writers crank the volume up to eleven.
Like Season 1, the main battleground for the second season was social media. In Season 1, this played a more functional role, with evidence being expertly extracted from Facebook comments and Instagram stories. This applies here too, including an interesting line of investigation stemming from the iOS 11.1 glitch that arose in November 2017. However, given the inextricable link between social media and The Turd Burglar, this gave the writers more opportunity to analyse the relationship between the students and their social media personas. The nastiness of McClain’s peers becomes immediately apparent in this way, but it is also an apt reminder of the different question at the heart of Season 2. Season 1 was a “whodunnit”, and Sam and Peter had to pick out, from a large group of people, who was responsible. Season 2, however, is more of a “whoisit”. We know that the Turd Burglar is responsible, and so the task was to uncover the veil provided by social media.
In this way, Season 2 is less of the damning indictment of social media normally provided by teen drama, but a reminder that incidents that happen in real life, and incidents that happen on social media, are not independent. Season 2 is not afraid to tackle some of the most pressing concerns arising from our relationship with the Internet, including cyberbullying, public shaming, and catfishing, but it ensures that the real, human stories of the individuals concerned is told. In a voiceover at the end of the season, Peter reminds us “we are the first generation who gets to live twice”, and it is stressed that whilst the dangers can be ubiquitous, social media can become a place to seek comfort when the real world is unable to provide.
I would argue that Season 1 has a number of positive factors over Season 2. It is certainly funnier (anchored by Jimmy Tatro’s iconic performance as prime suspect Dylan Maxwell), the intricacy of the Instagram stories and videos used for evidence is impeccable, and I appreciated a more colourful cast of characters, who have a greater collective impact on the story. However, it seems that Season 1 was an experiment to see if the setup could work at all, whereas Season 2 was a challenge to see how impactful the setup could potentially be, and it worked beautifully. It’s a shame that most shows about high school suffer from a virus of condescension, where students are treated either like zoo animals to be observed like Insatiable, or are put on a pedestal like 13 Reasons Why. It is also ironic that the best representations of high school are deemed too mature or intense for these students (American Vandal is rated as 17+ in the United States. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is rated R). However, this does not negate the importance of the key messages of American Vandal, and is its confirmation as one of TV’s most essential shows.
Featured Image Credit: Screenshot, Netflix