After the first episode of Netflix’s new true crime satire, American Vandal, I was certain I knew who did it. The crime in question? Twenty-seven spray painted dicks, splashed onto the cars of faculty members at Hanover High School, like a senior prank gone wrong. One hour of this investigation would’ve been fine, but thanks to Netflix, we have five solid hours that stretch the limits of credibility, even for a satire. American Vandal isn’t bad but it’s not that great either—just five hours of your life dedicated to what is essentially a dick joke viewed through the lens of connoisseurs of the craft.
At the center of this story is Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a doofy high school senior who maintains his innocence in the crime of spray painting the dicks. His personal Sara Koenig is Peter Maldonaldo (Tyler Alvarez), played with a devastating seriousness, and accompanied by his cameraman Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck). The case of who drew the dicks is not nearly as simple as it seems, and each revelation creates new avenues to explore. Peter and Sam’s commitment to the case is at times so compelling that I forgot that I was watching a fake documentary about who drew dicks on a bunch of cars in red spray paint.
All the visual tropes of true crime documentaries are in place, but American Vandal borrows heavily from Serial. Maldonado’s cadence is spot-on, as is his obsession with missing footage, security cameras, and something called the Kiefer Sutherland call, which will make sense only if you choose to embark on this journey. While I was never deeply invested in who actually did the dicks, I enjoyed the tightly-executed spoof of Serial’s first-season earnestness and manipulation.
All documentaries are inherently manipulative. Nowhere is this more evident than the true crime genre, though this particular trend ratchets up the manipulation and relishes in constantly skewing viewers’ perceptions. Did the accused actually commit the crime? (Another new Netflix series, The Confession Tapes, asks this explicitly.) Is the documentarian giving us the whole story? A good true crime series, in the vein of Making a Murderer or The Jinx, is unsettling because its aim is to expose the flaws in the system that allow innocent people to get caught or guilty people to run free. Every possible theory is explored, and new ones are concocted then debunked. At the end of it all, you’re left to draw your own conclusion. Applying the same formula to a dick joke and throwing enough money at it to produce an eight-part miniseries that looks like what a precocious teen with an unlimited budget would make at film camp in the summer before junior year is a bold move on Netflix’s part. It almost works, but holding a viewer’s attention for something as low-stakes as this is a difficult trick to pull off.
Part of what makes the show enjoyable to watch is how it captures the inane pettiness of high school rumors and gossip—hyper-specific and extremely stupid. Consider the sole witness in the case, Alex Trimboli, whose credibility is at stake over a contested hand job on a dock at summer camp. Sussing out whether or not he got the hand job involves detailed computer models of the incident in question—the best part—and a lengthy interviews with people who could’ve witnessed the hand job but swear up and down that there’s no possible way it could’ve happened. Much like the high school experience itself, American Vandal takes a joke that’s so basic that it’s not really even a joke and stretches it past its limits so that it’s almost funny.
What American Vandal proves quite neatly is that you can treat just about anything with the gravity of a Serial-style investigation and you’ll end up with something that’s funny enough. But even if the format is compelling, it’s hard to pay attention when something is as low stakes as this is. Perhaps the satire would’ve worked better if the show were chopped in half.