Last September, when Netflix dropped Season 1 of “American Vandal,” a mockumentary about the phallic-shaped vandalization of teacher’s cars and the subsequent student-led investigation to clear the name of the so-called “slacker” accused of the crime, it wasn’t expected to be anything special. It was thought to be nothing more than a single “dick” joke spread across eight episodes. Surprisingly, the series proved a genuine triumph, expertly blending its absurd comedic premise with a surprisingly gripping and emotional story about how high-schoolers get labeled and are forced to fit into specific social categories. Needless to say, Season 2, released on Sept. 14, 2018, had a lot to live up to, and, though there are hiccups along the way, the series once again delivers a satisfying season.
Season 2 follows the same documentary team, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), as they travel to a Catholic private school to uncover the identity of the “turdburglar,” an entity that has been terrorizing the school through fecal-related pranks such as a laxative-laced lemonade jug, an excrement-stuffed pinata and some T-shirt cannons stuffed with dried cat feces. As the team investigates the prank spree, they uncover a web of corruption, deceit and high-school drama that only grows wider with the evidence they unearth.
The second season boasts the same technical inventiveness as the first, with social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram playing a key part in the team’s investigation into the “turdburglar.” The way the series utilizes realistic social media posts that not only gives insight into the character of who posted it, but also propels the plot forward by exhibiting minute details that provide evidence for the investigation is remarkable. It truly is a marvel of efficient storytelling.
Particular highlights of this season are the complex characters who become the subject of the mockumentary. In season one, Dylan Maxwell, the student accused of the penis vandalization, is the only character given significant character development. This time around, all of the significant recurring characters display personal motivations, arcs and quirks. Whether it be Kevin McClain (Travis Trope), the socially distant student who is punished for the “turdburglar” crimes, or the outgoing DeMarcus Tillman (played to perfection by Melvin Gregg), the star basketball player who eventually becomes a suspect, the characters are given the time and focus to develop into believable people. In addition, all of the actors give well-rounded performances that provide gravity for the situations they face, as well as allowing for the occasional bit of realistic, in-character comedy.
Frankly, Season 2 is simply not as funny as its predecessor. There is no moment that comes close to the major break in season one when Peter and Sam realized that the vandal didn’t draw pubes on the spray-painted penises, or the deep-dive investigation, with computer models that look straight out of a JFK assassination conspiracy video, of whether or not a handjob at a lake actually occurred. This season, there is a distinct separation between comedic moments and plot-progression, which causes it to be much more uneven. That is not to say it isn’t funny. There are many chuckle-worthy moments derived from some of the eccentricities of Kevin’s character and the larger-than-life personality of DeMarcus. However, there’s no real gut-busting moments anywhere in the season.
The story of the “turdburglar” is not as immediately engaging as that of the mystery of “who drew the dicks?” For most of the season, it appears as though the show is sticking to the first season’s formula. That is, until the final episodes, which upend the pacing and structure that the show had been clinging to and make the tension and eventual conclusion all the more satisfying. The last two episodes are some of the best television released all year — it’s a shame the six preceding episodes could not live up to their eventual conclusion. On a narrative level, the conclusion is unsatisfying and feels a bit like a cheat, but thematically, it is the perfect ending for the story, emphasizing the themes of public appearance, social media, isolation and the need for an authentic relationship. There’s a particular scene in the finale in which DeMarcus is completely emotionally open in a car with the documentary crew that is both poignant and emotionally resonant.
Season 2 of “American Vandal” makes the synchronized defecation of an entire school into a surprisingly powerful message about modern teenagers. If you don’t think that’s even a bit impressive, then you’re full of s**t.