“American Vandal,” a documentary-style, eight-episode Netflix series, is artfully shot and well edited. The show tells the story of a crime and the controversy that surrounds it. Its voice-overs are methodical, crisp and compelling; they draw viewers into the story, inviting them to be part of the investigation, too.
With maps, crime-scene re-creations and interviews with key players, the documentary would be a fantastic piece of journalism — except that it’s a mockumentary, a work of fiction, a satire.
“American Vandal,” details a peculiar crime: someone entered a high school parking lot on the day of a teacher in-service and spray-painted penises on every car in the parking lot. A student, Dylan, is accused of the crime, charged with a felony and potentially faces expulsion.
Dylan’s the epitome of a stereotype everyone remembers from high school — the disruptive bro who thinks drawing penises wherever he can is the height of comedy. His alleged actions are juvenile, and the school’s response is way overboard. These two factors make the situation ripe for satire of America’s current true crime obsession.
As a true crime fan, I reveled in the way that “American Vandal” poked fun at acclaimed true crime features like documentaries and podcasts — I love a good spoof.
“American Vandal” appears to be the product of one of Dylan’s coworker’s from the student news station, who decides to make a documentary about Dylan’s case. As he investigates both sides of the story, there’s a crucial voicemail that the documentarian believes could either confirm or disprove Dylan’s innocence.
There’s also a timed reenactment of the crime, used to test Dylan’s alibi. All the show needs is to have someone say “Mailkimp” to complete the chain of references to This American Life’s hit murder mystery podcast, “Serial.”
I all but applauded as moody images flashed across the screen and an equally atmospheric song played — it looked like the title sequence from “The Jinx,” HBO’s acclaimed documentary in which filmmakers interviewed an accused murderer about his crimes.
Still, Dylan is neither as multifaceted as Adnan Syed from “Serial” nor as evil as Robert Durst from “The Jinx.” He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed and hardly a sympathetic character. He says he could not have committed the vandalism because he was with friends at the time, pranking an elderly neighbor. Boys will be boys, right?
Still, Dylan might be innocent, and we watch the fictional documentarian in “American Vandal” grapple with telling both sides of the story, of deciding whether or not he can trust his subject — something we also see in “Serial” and “The Jinx.”
That’s where the show rises from satire to a reflection of our culture. Why are we so obsessed with mysteries, with whodunits? Why do we want to hear from alleged criminals and try to judge their guilt or innocence for ourselves?
It would be easy to say it’s because we, as humans, cannot look away from gory crime or horrible tragedies. But when the crime being investigated is about a cartoonish drawing of a penis — something bound to elicit nothing more than an eye-roll from anyone who’s been through middle and high school — we don’t keep watching out of morbid fascination. We keep watching out of pure curiosity, because we enjoy the way our fascination spikes with every new twist and turn.
“American Vandal” teases journalists and their audiences because the show’s serious tone gives it a dry humor. It’s never mock-serious though — it’s always earnest, making the joke hit that much harder. The show is not often laugh-out-loud funny, but still hits the spot if you’re looking for an engaging, ultimately light-hearted weekend binge.