Review: American Vandal (2017)

This roughly 4.5-hour long series spread over eight episodes was created by Funny or Die and currently streaming on Netflix, is a satire on the true crime genre that has become increasingly popular in recent times. This is where there has been a real crime that has either gone unsolved or where there has been a conviction and the case is considered closed. But then a private group, usually journalists or lawyers, start looking closely at the case and discover new evidence that either exonerates the person who had been thought guilty or, for an unsolved case, draws attention to a possible suspect.

True crime documentaries usually involve serious crimes like murder or rape. What this series does in shift the setting to a high school where the crime consists of an act of someone spray-painting large red penises on all 27 cars in the school faculty parking lot and erasing the security camera footage during the time the act was committed. Suspicion quickly falls on one student Dylan Maxwell who, along with his three close friends, is well-known for his silly and obnoxious pranks that they film for their YouTube video channel. Since Maxwell is a notorious goof-off who has a history of drawing penises on school whiteboards, and since a fellow student says he saw him actually vandalizing the cars, it does not take long for the school board to find Maxwell guilty and expel him, in addition to criminal charges being filed against him.

Enter the high school news team and its two top journalists Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund who decide to make a documentary about the case. In the process, they interview all the people involved to create a timeline of the events and possible motives, alibis, and opportunity to commit the crime and in doing so begin to have doubts about Maxwell’s guilt. They then broaden their documentary to investigate the case and see if they can identify the real culprit. American Vandal is a mockumentary about Maldonado and Ecklund’s making of their documentary, also called American Vandal.

I found this window into American high school culture with all its dynamics involving students, faculty, and administrators to be quite fascinating but since I did not go to high school here, I cannot vouch for its accuracy. But the intrigues, gossip, and jealousies, are typical of closed communities where people are forced to interact with each other over a period of years. The series ends with a thoughtful reflection on how we respond to how others perceive us. Is Maxwell simply living down to the low expectations that others have of him, an expectation that he himself played a part in creating, thus caught in a vicious negative spiral? Are we doomed to not be able to shake off our early reputations, created when we were too young to know better?

The series is well-written and intriguing, and the cast of mostly young actors do an excellent job.

Here’s the trailer.

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