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'American Vandal' Kills the Joke in its Second Season

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Thursday Sep 13, 2018

It's nearly impossible to recapture lightning in a bottle.

The investigative podcast "Serial" became a phenomenon when it debuted in late 2014. Exploring the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, the "This American Life" spinoff got so big, it gave a boom to the podcast industry as well as sparking a true crime wave on TV. Shortly after, two true crime series - HBO's "The Jinx" and Netflix's "Making a Murderer" - became huge cultural lightning rods and over the last few years, we've been hit with a deluge of true crime series on the small screen. It's no surprise that we eventually got the true crime parody series "American Vandal" last year.

"American Vandal" has more in common with "Serial" than the "true crime" genre. Almost a year after its first season, "Serial" returned with a highly anticipated follow up. This time, host and producer Sarah Koenig focused on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, an American Army soldier who was held captive for five years by the Taliban and later charged with desertion. Though it was a story that made national headlines - unlike the small murder case that Season 1 centered on - the enthusiasm around the podcast's second effort was definitely muted, proving Season 1 was a once-in-a-lifetime sensation.

Blending lowbrow humor with the sophistication of this new wave of true crime, the first season of "American Vandal" was a surprise hit for Netflix and went on to win a Peabody Award. The premise is simple: Two high students - Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) - investigate a costly prank where someone spray-painted 27 penises on the faculty's cars. The mockumentary centered on the alleged culprit, burnout senior "class clown" Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro in a breakout role).

Griffin Gluck, left and Tyler Alvarez, right, appear in a scene from Netflix's "American Vandal" Season 2. Photo credit: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix

With just eight, half-hour length episodes, "American Vandal" Season 1 was a delight. It brilliantly spoofed new true crime shows with overdramatic drone shots, complicated timeline breakdowns, and in-depth analysis on the way people draw penises. The comedy perfectly walked the tightrope between ridiculousness and mystery. Unfortunately, "American Vandal" Season 2, which hits Netflix on Friday, pales in comparison in almost every way to its first installment. The show follows the same format - nearly to a tee - and nearly kills the joke that made Season 1 a success.

"American Vandal" - the show within the show that Peter and Sam created and released online - became so popular, the duo are hit with thousands of emails from students around the country, begging them to help catch those behind pranks plaguing their school. The teens finally answer a message by a student from St. Bernardine, a ritzy private Catholic high school in Bellevue, Washington and travel there to crack the case and film it as part of their senior project.

They learn about a recent incident that occurred at the school called "The Brown Out." The heinous act was carried out by an anonymous culprit who bills himself as "The Turd Burglar." The Turd Burglar, ostensibly a student at the school, is said to have spiked the school's popular lemonade dispenser during lunchtime with an uber-strong laxative, sparking a large number of students at the school to suddenly and literally shit their pants. With bathrooms quickly being occupied, several students were forced to relieve themselves anywhere they can, completely humiliating them. The moment, recorded by cellphone-carrying students, is nauseating, stressful and hilarious. And it turns out it's not The Turd Burglar's only prank. With only an Instagram account, the crappy criminal pulls off a few other poop related pranks all while taunting the school and a handful of select students via social media.

A scene from Netflix's "American Vandal" Season 2. Photo credit: Netflix

Like in Season 1, "American Vandal" has another possibly falsely accused suspect at the center of Season 2: Much of Peter and Sam's sleuthing is focused on whether or not Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), a very specific type of high school weirdo (think a theater geek crossed with a 4Chan basement nerd), is The Turd Burglar. Kevin confessed to pulling off The Brown Out but things quickly get complicated. Much of Season 2 hinges on Kevin but Tope is no Tatro. The absence of Tatro's Dylan is a huge hole in the season and, despite starting off solidly, "American Vandal" struggles to find its footing and never captures the same kind of Season 1 magic. That's not to say Tope is bad here - he's a committed young actor, completely embodying Kevin and his tea-huffing freakishness. Season 2 falters mostly because it feels like a lesser carbon copy of Season 1.

The show also does not flesh out the characters around Kevin, making Season 2 feel like a one-dimensional world - the complete opposite of the fully realized Season 1. Besides Kevin, the only other character "American Vandal" successfully creates is DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), St. Bernardine's top basketball player and an all-around popular guy. Like Dylan and Kevin, DeMarcus is a hilarious archetype that gets skewered and Gregg's great performance only enhances bringing DeMarcus to life. Kevin and DeMarcus are fun characters but it's not enough and it's hard to latch onto any of the other characters in Season 2, including Peter and Sam who have very little development this time around. (Those who watched Season 1 will remember the surprising rift between the friends.) With flat characters, it's hard to care about the (overly complicated and twisty) pranks at play.

Like Season 1, "American Vandal" Season 2 also has just eight, half-hour episodes, all of which were made available for review. It's a digestible format and a near-perfect time length - you never have to worry that the comedy will outstay its welcome. Even so, Season 2 is a disappointing return, lacking the compelling tone that made Season 1 a fantastic watch. "American Vandal" Season 2 proves you can't trade dicks for poop; there's an art behind even the dumbest jokes.


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