Streaming services like Netflix often tend to work on a model which favors hype following instead of leading – for every Marvel property or proven commodity like Black Mirror that’s preceded by a blitz of hype, there are dozens of series that get released with little fanfare, banking on big leaps of faith that the right folks will find it. (Remember how little advance buzz accompanied Stranger Things before that first weekend turned it into a phenomenon?) Still, on paper, a true-crime satire that harnessed the appeal of both 13 Reasons Why and Making a Murderer sounds like the kind of sure thing that would get a major marketing rollout. Which is why you’d have thought that Netflix would have turned the premiere of American Vandal, Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault’s parody of modern investigative vérité set in a high school, into a major stop-the-presses event.
Instead, the show was quietly, unceremoniously slipped on to the site in mid-September. In retrospect, it was a smart move: The sterling surprise of it all is a huge part of what makes this eight-episode gem such a delight. Though the service refuses to release quantifiable data, you only needed to hear the exponentially growing word of mouth over the last few months to know that Netflix had a homegrown success on their hands. American Vandal started out as just a cryptically titled curio nestled in among a host of other “Just Added” options on your programming menu. It leaves 2017 as the sleeper TV hit of the year.
Vandal’s recipe is deceptively simple: Add one part of the ride-along suspense of true-crime programming, one part of the vagaries of high school life, spice with a costly act of vandalism in a teacher’s parking lot. Somebody spray-painted penises on 27 cars. Who drew the dicks? the series asks. Sophomore/aspiring filmmaker Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) hopes his documentary will exonerate senior/prime suspect Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tetro), a chronic troublemaker with a YouTube prank channel. In truth, this half-hour comedy probably could have been 40-percent less good and it still would have succeeded thanks to these ingredients. (It definitely helps that the cast here isn’t one Carpool Karaoke away from being overexposed, and thus remain authentic to their characters.) But several minutes into the first episode, you the viewer – perhaps, just like me – might have found yourself briefly wondering: Wait, is this real?
Credit Netflix’s commitment to the premise: Over a straining violin score, the opening credits unfurl with “director” Peter Maldonado taking top billing “in association with the Hanover High School TV department,” a fictional campus in Oceanside, California. That, and the brilliant casting of unknowns, helps make Vandal so thoroughly convincing. With his soft, broad features, Tetro is outstanding as the stoner Every Bro whose physical stature belies his emotional immaturity. The actor plays Dylan with such goofy arrogance that he reminds you of someone you went to high school with; he also has a knack for making this lunkhead seem like he only casually at best cares about uncovering the truth. “Letting me get expelled for something I didn’t even do? Such a bitch move,” he grouses in the parlance of his posse, the Wayback Boys. Meanwhile, Alvarez’s Peter, his bar-mitzvah mustache making a faint bid for authority, perfectly completes their odd coupling as he tries to compensate for Dylan’s ambivalence with his own overdeveloped seriousness.
Given Vandal‘s documentary style, Making a Murderer may be its obvious analogue, but it wears the influence of the equally popular Serial podcast on its sleeve – especially when Peter, with the help of his adorable friend Sam (Griffin Gluck), earnestly explores the case’s mundane inconsistencies. The phalluses on the cars feature “way better mushroom heads,” the dogged high-schooler argues; furthermore, the offending graffiti-ed groins are sans pubic hair, wheras with Dylan’s handy work, “you’re not going to find a single hairless nutsack on those [class] whiteboards.” (Cue a montage of phallic photographic evidence.) Their methodical, almost forensic approach to puerile details draws the most laughs, as do the hilarious supporting characters they interrogate along the way – particularly Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), the greasy-haired key witness who would do and say anything to be popular; and the Drake-loving history teacher Mr. Krazanski (Ryan O’Flanagan), whose nickname, Kraz, suggests he’s equally desperate to be cool.
If all the show did was lampoon some of the staples of the true-crime genre, however, Vandal wouldn’t be a triumph. It takes a few episodes to realize how cleverly the series is setting up a larger story about the ethics of certain journalistic endeavors, all while creating an admirable amount of suspense regarding who, indeed, drew those dicks. Each half-hour installment debunks red herrings and tracks down hot leads with all the dedication of the real thing – and there are legitimate crime dramas that have attempted this same concept with less subtlety and finesse. (Looking at you, last season of Broadchurch). One episode unpacks Trimboli’s trustworthiness after specious claims that he got a hand job from the school hottie; another picks apart an alibi that hinges on a latergram. And American Vandal is so studiously steeped in the actual high-school ecosystem – “admin days,” summer-camp gossip and the quotidian drama of unflattering boomerangs – that it often works equally well as a snapshot of modern-day adolescence. Yes, you get absurd debates about whether a text that reads heyy with two Ys is an invitation to sex, but the series itself never lapses into absurdity.
The series also exceeds expectations when it grapples with the consequences of reporting on real-life crimes – and here we venture into spoiler territory. (Proceed with caution.) In the fifth episode, the series delivers a deft wow-moment, revealing that a fictional audience has been watching Peter’s documentary along with us. Not only do they have opinions for miles; they have their own theories, too. Peter quickly learns how creating entertainment, no matter how noble or well-intentioned, can spin out of control as the facts become a bone for rabid Internet lynch mobs. He reckons with his role in trampling his classmates’ privacy and exposing ordinary citizens to a form of social media warfare known as doxxing. This, for example, is something Serial host and executive producer Sarah Koenig could only address in interviews after that podcast aired in late 2014, mainly because the intensity with which some fans greeted her reporting was entirely unanticipated – one Reddit community essentially launched its own amateur investigation into the same murder.
And the series observes the logic of its conceit. In an interview with IndieWire, the creators point out that someone like Kraz, for instance, may seem like David Brent from the original U.K. version of The Office. But the “hip” teacher is fired for the wildly inappropriate things he says, as any teacher would be if a video like this went viral. Similarly, our main suspect isn’t always one-dimensional, even when he’s helping out with the punchline. After Peter suggests that Dylan’s girlfriend may be lying, he objects: “She tells me everything. She tells me when she’s on her period and, dude, that’s not even that gross to me. That’s just the way that shit works.” It’s minor, but coming from the school Neanderthal, it’s proof of evolution.
Clearly, American Vandal never loses its sense of humor, even in climactic moments. When Peter starts to entertain doubts about Dylan, he confronts him, yelling, “I said the word dick to teachers for you!” But without completely giving away the ending, the series also leans in to its sadder undercurrents. Dylan finally watches some of the documentary, and he’s chastened to realize how most people see him. His gamer girlfriend, Mackenzie, is dealing with her own issues after her parents’ divorce. Peter questions his entire endeavor. The whole thing is an eight-episode balancing act – smartly reveling in potty humor and then turning into a thoughtful meditation on teenage identity. It’s hilarious and, somehow, quietly heartbreaking. It’s the most elaborate down-the-rabbit-hole dick joke anyone has ever attempted. It’s the breakout show of the year.