'American Vandal' is the first show to actually understand how teens use the internet
We do not now nor have we ever deserved American Vandal.
Season one of Netflix and Funny or Die’s fake documentary series won audiences over with its verisimilitude, by posing the question “Who drew the dicks?” and getting us properly invested in the answer.
The second season does the same, and what makes Vandal so compelling is that, while the stories may not be true, the show and everyone in it feel remarkably real. The combination of outlandish jokes and morally malleable teens wrapped up in an innate understanding of today's technology adds up to make Vandal one of the most authentic shows on TV.
Season 2 investigates another preposterous premise: Who is the Turd Burglar? That hilarious moniker goes to the anonymous social media entity whose antics haunt St. Bernadine Catholic in Washington state. By the time someone contacts Season 1’s Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), the Turd Burglar has committed at least three “poop crimes” at St. Bernadine: The Brownout (a massive diarrhea breakout), the Poop Piñata (exactly what it sounds like), and the Shit Launcher (it involves t-shirt cannons).
If you don’t have a soft spot for scatological humor (just as some were reticent about Season 1’s elaborate dick jokes), Vandal doesn’t need you along for the joyous, genius ride of Season 2. But if you laugh at every mention of the poo emoji or can at least suspend arbitrary standards of maturity, then get ready for another excellent ride.
Like Season 1, the first episode in the Turd Burglar saga brings us gently into our setting. There’s a pang at first for the distant world of Hanover High, for Dylan Maxwell and the Wayback Boys and the unresolved origin of the infamous dicks.
But that feeling passes quickly.
Within moments, you’re sucked into the perverse criminality of the Turd Burglar, drawn to prime suspect Kevin McClain (Travis Top) and the wider conspiracy he’s clearly ended up at the center of.
We’ve already seen Vandal’s impressive understanding of the social media generation; before Eighth Grade – one of the only other authentic portrayals of Gen Z’s digital world – there was Vandal Season 1, with evidence pieced together from Snapchats and Instagrams and a mystery solved by the public life of a social media generation.
Season 2 dives in even further and with groundbreaking results. We’re used to Vandal’s smooth integration of vertical phone videos and social media posts, but that doesn't diminish the satisfaction of watching it play out with such nuance and integrity (and lots of poop jokes!). The writers clearly understand and engage with this world – unlike other shows that demonstrate a baffling blind spot when it comes to engaging with tech. There's an entire investigative thread devoted to the notorious 2017 iOS glitch, and it's brilliant.
Nearly every pivotal student interviewed at St. Bernadine has been cyberbullied in some way; leaked photos or videos, breaches of privacy, and the additional layer that is documentation of the taunts and jeers that follow them. The crimes escalate to catfishing and identity theft, to the point where viewers could be truly unsettled – and welcome the cathartic giggle elicited by a grave invocation of the Turd Burglar.
Incidents like these can do irreparable damage to a reputation, and in some cases on Vandal, they do. But they also become part of people's history; the students of St. Bernadine spare only a few seconds to mock the social media scars of their peers before moving on to the next thing, demonstrating the resilience (and attention span) that makes teenagers so unique.
"All of our conversations are in this box," one character says about her virtual relationship with another person. This character is 16; she's grown up with that "box" and with the assumption that it works in her interest.
Fear of the internet was left mostly in the last century, replaced by an implicit trust in each other and technology (despite evidence to the contrary). Vandal reminds us that these little boxes in our pockets could be used against us at any moment, with devastating consequences.
Because of how they use social media, because of how effortlessly that technology coalesces in teens’ lives and in the show itself, Vandal is once again in a class of its own among content we’d otherwise compare it to. It is – and this is not hyperbole – wiping the floor with other representations of adolescence, particularly Netflix siblings 13 Reasons Why and Insatiable. The characters are relatable without the melodrama of those shows – it turns out that a genial basketball star is every bit as watchable and more so than a vengeful beauty queen or homeless heroin addict.
And the critical commentary doesn’t stop there. That basketball star, DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), is on a scholarship at this predominantly white Catholic school, and his background and code-switching are key factors in Peter and Sam’s investigation of him as a suspect. In the case of the Turd Burglar, black athletes are the ones reaping benefits of the school’s hierarchy, but DeMarcus is isolated by his stardom and identity. The way Vandal depicts and addresses toxic white masculinity in contrast is nothing short of stunning.
The slow-burning truth about the Turd Burglar is a just shy of noxious. On another show – and tragically, in reality – the perpetrator could commit far worse than a poop crime. The internet makes it easier than ever to hide one's true self, but Vandal asks who that self even is. What do we do about the nefarious boxes in our pockets? How do we uphold the honor system of the digital age?
Hopefully, by continuing to question and explore our relationship with the online world and finding humor and altruism when things get – you know, shitty.
American Vandal Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.
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September 14, 2018 at 09:31AM