Netflix’s “American Vandal” is unlike any true-crime show you’ve ever seen — and that’s why it’s great
Netflix’s latest true-crime documentary series, American Vandal, is very unlike its predecessors (think Making a Murderer and The Keepers.) That’s because American Vandal is a true-crime satire that centers on a documentarian, Peter (Tyler Alvarez), who’s determined to find out whether an accused vandal, Dylan (Jimmy Tatro), really spray painted phallic imagery onto 27 cars at the local high school.
YOU READ THAT RIGHT.
So, how did American Vandal come about? For one thing, co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault have a history with documentary parody. “We did a series of [30 for 30-like] documentaries,” Yacenda explained to HelloGiggles at the show’s recent Los Angeles premiere. “We did Space Jam. They were very serious. We just adore documentary in general.”
They soon realized they had a shared love of true crime, some favorites being Making a Murderer, Serial, and The Jinx. And were determined to do something with the genre.
“The conceit was if we could make something as well made — and with as much care and attention as The Jinx or Making a Murderer — and use all of those tools and conventions that they use as well as they use them, then you could get somebody to care about dicks.
He added, “We just wanted to take it as seriously as possible so you’re into the mystery and you’re trying to figure it out yourself.”
The show does just that, and uses tropes from the genre in a very effective way.
“We wanted to capture the unreliable narrator of Sarah Koenig in Serial, who brings you in as an audience and says ‘Hey, let’s figure this out together,’" Yacenda explained. “I think that’s one of our big tentpoles is trying to get the audience in on our side and just say ‘Hey, let’s find out together who drew the dicks.’
Showrunner Dan Lagana echoed that Koenig was a big influence. “I think Sarah Koenig is a genius and to have that voiceover, that narrator, that storyteller walking you through this — in the most compelling way possible, feeling like you’re on that journey with her, which she does so brilliantly — that was an important thing that I thought we needed to instill in this.”
He continued, “We took so many passes at the voiceover to make sure that Tyler Alvarez felt like the high school equivalent of Sarah Koenig. Maybe not as smart as he thinks he is, but trying that hard. And your heart goes out to him as he does it because you can feel how excited he is to tell the story — just like Sarah is in Serial.”
The authenticity of its characters and setting certainly helps create a convincing satire.
These kids truly feel like people you knew in high school. “We wanted to make a story that was deeper than just a dick joke, so we wanted to have well-rounded characters,” Perrault said, then turning to the setting. “But on a comedy level, high school is such an ideal setting for us and if you think about it, our whole theory in comedy, we’re talking about very, silly stuff and treating it very seriously, especially with this show.”
“And high school is very appropriate for that because, in high school, you take everything seriously, even though you’re talking about real low-stakes stuff — hookups and who’s friends with who and who’s dumping who," he continued. "We thought that high school was the perfect setting for a true-crime parody because of how overly serious we treat everything when we’re in high school.
All things considered, American Vandal really does feel like a true-crime show.
You’re desperate to know if Dylan committed the crime, while still appreciating the humor of this extraordinary situation. But while on the subject of origins, one has to wonder: Out of all the hilarious routes you could take a true-crime parody, why…phallic graffiti?
“It was the silliest thing we could come up with at the time that would be the funniest to treat as if it were a murder, Perrault explained. “You have a few other options. You have poop, for example, but we thought dicks was a good start, and that’s where we decided to go for Season 1.
Season 1, eh? The show only just debuted on Netflix, but could a Season 2 already be in the works?
“We’d love to continue the series and all I can say about it is that there are many tropes that we didn’t hit in the first season that we would hit in the second, Perrault said. “It’s just become such a huge genre at this point and there have been so many true-crime docs that came out even since we ended production.
Which is to say that the creative team would have a ton of new material to work with. In fact, they’re already keeping Amanda Knox, The Thin Blue Line, S-Town, and Serial Season 2 in mind.
We’ll wait with baited breath for word about more American Vandal, and in the meantime, we’ll watching, finishing, and (in all likelihood) re-watching the show — now on Netflix.