Review: ‘American Vandal’ second season is as good as the first

by Jordan McDonald | 9/25/18 2:10am

A masterful and satirical take on the crime drama complex that has swept the nation, Netflix’s “American Vandal” is mysterious, delectable and utterly ridiculous. Using a documentary format, “American Vandal” mocks the sophistication of the crime drama gaze by putting all its investigative energies toward deciphering the absurdities of high school life and the low-level offenses of the fictional Hanover High School’s student body.

In the show’s critically acclaimed first season, the Netflix original follows the camera of student documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) from Oceanside, California as they work to get to the bottom of a vandalism prank that resulted in the suspension of Hanover High’s resident low-life, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro). Accused of having spray-painted penises on all 28 of the vehicles in the faculty parking lot, Dylan forms an unexpected alliance with Peter and Sam in the hopes of overturning the criminal vandalism charges against him. An unreliable and notoriously impulsive rendition of the crime drama victim, Dylan gives the boys a formidable challenge: proving him innocent.

Following in the footsteps of “whodunit” plots that enlist the audience in detective work, “American Vandal” invites viewers to deduce and question everyone and everything involved in uncovering the vandalizer’s true identity. Now a Peabody award-winning show,“American Vandal” premiered its second season last week on Sept.14. Fit with high school hijinks and all the trappings of juvenilia, the show made a name for itself and has acquired a substantial fan base as a result. Thanks to its hilarious and thoughtful commitment to telling the story of teenage investigators who place the sometimes elusive world of adolescents under their A.V. Club camera lenses, the show manages to earn laughs and loyalty. Season two of “American Vandal” maintains its characteristic momentum and sense of humor while balancing rather complex topics within the otherwise stifling confines of St. Bernadine Prep, a fictional Catholic private school in affluent Bellevue, Washington.

Besting the absurdity of the first season’s central prank, season two travels north to uncover the mystery of a high school terrorist, dubbed the “Turd Burglar,” who launches his reign of terror by poisoning the cafeteria lemonade with laxatives in a ludicrous and aptly named fiasco known as the “Brownout.” Desperate to unmask St. Bernadine’s tormentor, Chloe Lyman (Taylor Dearden) reaches out to Sam and Peter in the hopes that the brains behind the first “American Vandal” documentary could crack the case of the Turd Burglar and exonerate Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), a St. Bernadine student who was allegedly coerced into confessing to the crimes. An obnoxious tea connoisseur and social outcast, Kevin differs greatly from season one’s victim, Dylan Maxwell. Nonetheless, he serves the narrative in similar ways, emerging as the somewhat unreliable protagonist of the new season. Unlike season one, however, he is not the character who steals the show and earns immense fanfare. Instead, it is the accompanying cast of students, staff and suspects who leave lasting impact. Season two’s standout character is arguably DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Griggs).

A charismatic black student-athlete from the low-income neighborhood Rainer Beach, DeMarcus enters St. Bernadine as a fish out of water, but it is his uncanny capacity for adaptation and his dynamic personality that allow him to glide above the rest. The star of St. Bernadine’s highly-competitive basketball team, DeMarcus names himself “Mr. Untouchable,” a moniker that serves to highlight his agility on and off the court. Due to his popularity and charisma, DeMarcus is often able to bend the rules and rigidity of St. Bernadine, and thus his wealth of freedoms earn him the suspicions of Peter and Sam. As the case unravels, so too does DeMarcus’s veneer of impermeability. Over the course of the eight-episode arc, the show’s writers expertly shape his world with honesty and tact. Exploring the realities of black athletes at prestigious and primarily white universities, season two grapples with code-switching and athletic recruitment with delicacy and wit.

Unexpectedly, season two of “American Vandal” manages the outrageous premise of a mass defecation prank by grounding the story in the real world. Taking on a wealth of topics such as race, bullying, social media, adolescent friendship, the criminal justice system, institutional bureaucracy and private school politics, “American Vandal” follows up on its satirical and comedic beginnings with remarkable skill. As a big fan of the first season, I was pleased to witness the show top its first act after setting the bar so high.

Though it is, first and foremost, a parody of the many true crime documentaries that have enjoyed recent media attention, “American Vandal” in its second season asserts itself as a show interested in posing important questions while humoring its audience. For those of us who enjoy crime dramas but are, at times, fatigued by the graphic and often gratuitous violence of crime television, “American Vandal” serves as a compelling reprieve. As a fan of shows like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Minds,” “American Vandal” feeds my hunger for thrill and mystery without centering violent crimes like rape and murder.