Here’s a secret fact about me: I’ve never found dirty jokes to be funny. If someone tells me a joke that has anything to do with “dicks” or “turds,” I can’t help but feel as though I’m talking to a 12-year-old boy who is desperately trying to impress his dumb tween friends.
Netflix’s sleeper-hit American Vandal thrives on those dirty, immature jokes—but, somehow, it manages to be inexplicably smart about them. In season one, Vandal treated us to the case of 27 “dicks” spray painted onto cars in a high school’s parking lot. The suspect? Exactly who you’d expect: a pothead slacker (played perfectly by Jimmy Tatro), an 18-year-old already notorious for drawing penises on literally any surface imaginable. In other words, a kid you definitely went to high school with and definitely kind of hated. The first season also introduced us to two amateur filmmakers: Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), whose previous film repertoires include their high school’s morning announcements. Sam and Peter function as our guides into the world of Oceanside, California, and through their documentary they explore what makes people like Dylan easy targets for low expectations and damaging assumptions. Their investigation proved surprisingly poignant and illuminating—all while staying within the lens of high school hierarchical nonsense.
For fans of American Vandal, there was general apprehension about how a second season would measure up to season one’s perfect commentary on high school and life. How would showrunners Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda manage to create another lightheartedly heartbreaking season like the first?
Well, they didn’t make a season like the first. They changed the tone, the location, and the type of crime. They managed to create something just as fantastic as season one, just in a different way.
In season two, we are taken to a completely different location (a Catholic high school in Bellevue, Washington), given a completely different crime (a poop-related series of attacks on the student body), and even a different production team behind the documentary (don’t worry, Mr. Baxter is still the executive producer, but now Netflix is in on the action in their universe as well as our own). Peter and Sam are outsiders at this school—like us—and this sense of removal added to the more pressing (and genuinely haunting) nature of the crimes serves to make this season darker, and more urgent, than the more comedically-focused season one. The investigation now revolves around the identity of the Turd Burglar, an Instagram persona claiming responsibility for the terrorizing series of poop-related attacks.
For this season’s scapegoat, we are given a completely new brand of high school outcast to recognize and root for—someone who is a far cry from Dylan. Our new societal victim is Kevin McClain, a flat-cap-wearing weirdo played brilliantly pompous and delightfully annoying by Travis Trope. Kevin is also someone we all knew in high school—the type of person who makes himself weirder in order to make himself interesting, someone who doesn’t think he can be bullied because he wants people to find him strange and different. With this stranger, darker crime streak, it makes sense that Kevin is the initial suspect. He’s aloof and arrogant, and you can tell how smart he thinks he is based solely on his pronunciation of horchata (a Spanish tea drink which this fancy school sells in their cafeteria). And yet, American Vandal once again lets us into the sadness and loneliness central to any high school student. Even when Kevin is at his most obnoxiously pretentious, we can’t help but sympathize and root for him, and question how we would have (and did) treat the Kevins of the world in our own high schools.
For those who fear they will miss Dylan’s dimwitted charm from season one: don’t fret. This season finds its lovably dumb high school boy in DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), the basketball star with an inflated ego and sense of importance. As the season progresses, you’ll find yourself genuinely shocked at the wide range of high school personalities that Vandal was able to fit into just eight episodes.
I think the best part about American Vandal—besides its ability to make us care about the perpetrators of these high school crimes—is how accurately (and devastatingly) it manages to portray teenagers and the culture imbedded into their existence. With season two’s focus on social media and the ways in which people can manipulate how their peers view them through their online personas, this season also reveals the darker aspects of high school mentalities. It shows us the consequences of our online lives in a way that rings true to us even after we’ve graduated high school. For Sam and Peter, emoji use and the iPhone “glitch” of 2017 can be viewed as groundbreaking clues in a remarkably perceptive look into the teenage mind.
Throughout the season I found myself caring less about Peter and Sam’s investigation, and more about the lives of the people their documentary was affecting. That’s not to say I didn’t care a LOT about who the Turd Burglar is—it’s mainly a testament to how great Vandal really is. The fact that I sympathized with and recognized (almost) every character presented in the school, to the extent that I cared more about their well-being than about the central mystery, shows that American Vandal knows what it’s doing. I, for one, hope that it will continue to do it for the rest of Sam and Peter’s lives.