Netflix released a trailer in August for a show called “American Vandal.” It previewed the case of “known dick drawer” Dylan Matthews, a Hanover High School (Go Humpbacks!) student accused of defacing teachers’ cars with his phallic artistry. It’s a send-up of “true crime” stories, including Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.”
The trailer almost seemed like a one-off joke. Surely, Netflix wouldn’t make a show based around auto-erotic vandalism while mocking one of its own? Even if it did make such a show, that premise couldn’t sustain a four-plus hour mockumentary. Yet they did, and it does.
The World Of ‘American Vandal’ Feels Real
The series, presented as a documentary shot and edited by a Hanover High sophomore and a few of his friends, explores the possibility that Dylan Matthews might not have committed the crime of which he’s accused. Matthews certainly looks like the guilty party, as many students, teachers, and YouTube videos can attest. But each episode adds more doubt to the case against him. The trappings of a “wrongfully accused” story follow: conspiracies, cover-ups, lies, betrayals, black-and-white footage, slow-motion shots of the accused staring off, etc.
All that adds to what makes “American Vandal” so impressive: it features excellent production values and a very, very serious tone. The establishing shots, every rack focus, and other things I’ve forgotten from my broadcast classes are all done with such precision and sincerity that it feels legit. A passer-by might mistake it for a true story. It comes off as a project a high school student would spend far too much time on at the expense of everything else.
The world feels real, as well. The opening credits use the characters’ names, not the actors. The incorporation of social and viral media, YouTube clips, voicemails, and text messages helps craft a believable Hanover High, but also gives the characters depth. The students, teachers, and parents don’t come off as clichés, but as familiar people. You won’t see “the jock” or “the evil, clueless principal.” They seem like real people plucked out of an actual high school. It helps that most of the students actually look like high school students, rather than Tim Riggins.
This Show Is Both Crude and Ridiculous
You can tell the show’s creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda care about what they’re doing. This isn’t the Netflix equivalent of a Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer “comedy” like “Disaster Movie.” They’re not simply making a lazy spoof with wiener jokes. Yes, that drives the show. But it’s an actual mystery, despite the inherent silliness. While the humor dries up a bit as the investigation draws to a close, the ever-shifting mystery holds your attention through the end.
Despite the excellence, it’s a show for a very specific audience. Many will understandably be put off by the subject matter alone. The characters talk and act like teenagers, not teenagers in a network television show. The phrase “ball hairs” (a surprisingly important aspect of the case) probably gets used more in this series than in the rest of television combined. It plays like its inspiration “Making a Murderer” or even a “special investigation” episode of “Dateline.” Yet at times it felt like a live-action episode of “South Park,” such was the professional manner in which they presented such a crude and ridiculous case.
In the end, what I loved about “American Vandal” isn’t so much the humor. It’s that I could see a real high school student earnestly and lovingly making it. His teacher would give him a passing grade despite the wildly inappropriate subject matter, simply because of the effort. And his parents would realize it’s the hardest he’s ever worked on anything at school.