The Netflix mockumentary series American Vandal is about two high school students, Peter and Sam, who make documentaries about people wrongfully accused of vandalism. At first, these cases seem unintriguing because they’re about vandals who spraypaint drawings of genitals on cars and pour laxatives in lemonade. However, both of its two seasons are extremely captivating and hilarious. After another re-watch of the show a year later, I still care about the mysteries they investigate, no matter how silly they are. Warning, spoilers ahead!
It’s a Clever Satire of Documentaries
American Vandal is a satire of true crime documentaries. By covering ridiculous crimes, the show has more levity than the dramatic documentaries you see on Netflix. The people who watch Peter’s documentary in the show also reflect us as viewers. The release of the documentary causes fans to harass people involved in the case. Sarah calls Peter out on this, yelling at him about exploiting the details of her private life. This moment is crucial because it shows how documentaries can make positive impacts, like freeing the innocent, but they also can harm the lives of the participants.
Ethics of Documentarians
Peter and Sam have a hard time not getting close to their subjects in the first season because they go to school with them. Their biases are evident in the documentary, even though they make a case for how one of them could’ve done it. Also, Peter’s documentary causes conflict in the lives of his friends and classmates. The moments where Peter and Sam realize they failed to distance themselves were intriguing, showing how it’s human to care about the people they’re trying to exonerate.
The second season is enticing as it deals with the effect documentarians can have on the narrative of strangers. While the investigation of “the turd burglar” leads to a lot of good in the school district, it also has negative impacts. Peter causes the burglar to leak private messages of students when he provokes him. However, when Kevin tells Peter that he hopes they’ll stay in contact online or in-person, I felt happy. This scene conveys how documentaries can both divide people and bring them together.
The Influence of Technology on Teenagers
The series does a great job utilizing the culture of technology, Gen Z’s, and millennials into the plot of the show. The mockumentary uses found footage, screenshots of messages, and social media posts to paint a full picture of the crime and characters. The second season especially touches on how people can use the internet to create facades and gain validation. American Vandal doesn’t feel like a show made by adults guessing what kids are like. Instead, the characters and the struggles they face in the series feel genuine.
Exposing Issues in the Education System
The show also touches on issues in American school systems. Some problematic teachers in the show get fired, whereas others get off free due to their status in the community, which often happens in real life. Also, the series portrays how stereotyping can be harmful. For example, Dylan’s classmates and teachers label him as a burnout who won’t amount to anything. Because he thinks no one will ever see him differently, he commits the crime people always thought he did. This twist was sad, but is one of my favorite things about the show, as it demonstrates how damaging stereotypes can be.
Furthermore, the series reveals how schools can treat students who play sports differently than other students. In the second season, athletes go unpunished for their pranks while other students get expelled. This issue is especially evident in DeMarcus’s basketball nickname “Mr. Untouchable,” as the school allows athletes to get a free pass.
I thought the show could’ve dealt with the instances of sexual harassment with more sensitivity. It does show Sarah telling Peter that discussing her sexual encounters in the documentary was inappropriate. However, the show glosses over the topic quickly. A similar problem happens when the turd burglar leaks student’s nudes in season two. The show’s strength is bringing gravity to silly situations. However, the humor falls flat when it treats the issue of sexual harassment and child pornography too lightly.
American Vandal is worth watching if you can enjoy a bit of juvenile humor. For the most part, it balances the ridiculous premises with well-rounded characters and surprising plot twists. The best part of the show is how it gives a voice to an often-ridiculed generation. Plus, it makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it.
I still am hoping for more documentaries from Peter and Sam even though the show got canceled. But for now, you can binge the two seasons of American Vandal on Netflix.
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