If Netflix’s American Vandal wasn’t the greatest show of 2017, it was the most surprisingly great. A mockumentary from a largely unknown cast and creative team, it managed to keep the joke of its premise — two high school AV nerds doggedly pursue the truth about who spray-painted 27 dicks on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot — tumescently hilarious throughout. More importantly, all the dick humor gradually rose to point at something deeper and sadder as the series considered the lives of all the kids featured in the fake film. It was a note-perfect parody of one genre (true crime) and a sincerely terrific example of another (teen drama).
Vandal Season Two (it debuts September 14; I’ve seen all eight episodes) no longer has surprise on its side, and instead comes burdened with expectation and skepticism. How can such an out-of-nowhere delight be topped? Or should co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, plus showrunner Dan Lagana, have even tried?
The good news is that the new season is as compulsively watchable as the first, perhaps even more. It’s more ambitious in scope(*) and in its themes, and the mystery takes on a more concrete air of whodunnit than the matter of trying to clear poor, dumb Dylan Maxwell’s name of the dick-drawing. The characterization feels richer, and if you loved those later chapters when you saw the unintended impact the documentary was having on its subjects, there’s even more of that insight and melancholy this time around.
(*) Along the way, Netflix itself becomes a character in the story, explaining both how the first season looked as good as it did on a high school budget, and how our heroes seem to have unlimited resources this time out.
The bad news is that it’s not nearly as funny, despite having a new premise that literally seems ripe for all kinds of funny shit.
The popularity of the first season has made minor celebrities of filmmaking pals Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), and put them much in demand to investigate similarly graphic crimes around the country and even the world. (Screencaps of Peter’s inbox includes subject lines like “Vagina Graffiti,” “Dick Graffiti on My Shed” and “Ukrainian Vandal.”) Their interest is finally piqued by an incident at an elite Washington state Catholic school being terrorized by a serial vandal known as the Turd Burglar and his or her many fecal-related crimes. Chief among them is the Brown-Out, during which the cafeteria’s lemonade dispenser was laced with laxatives, inducing a wave of panicked diarrhea in the bathrooms and halls.
Footage of the Brown-Out is as ridiculous as it is disgusting — a kind of poop-stained storming the beaches at Normandy sequence mashed up with the most famous scene from Bridesmaids — though most of it is featured in the Season Two trailer. Soon, though, we are on a deep dive into the sad and lonely life of Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), who confesses to the crimes even though his old friend Chloe (Taylor Dearden) and his grandmother (Susan Ruttan) don’t think he did it(*).
(*) The Vandal Season One cast wasn’t made up entirely of unknowns, but the new group includes just enough recognizable faces that the documentary illusion is slightly harder to maintain. Even if you assume the show’s target demo won’t recognize Ruttan from LA Law, Dearden was the lead on an MTV drama, Sweet/Vicious (and is Bryan Cranston’s daughter), one of the teachers is played by the ubiquitous Sarah Burns, Tope was prominent at the end of Boardwalk Empire, etc.
Kevin’s a familiar figure: an outsider who has built up an entire quirky persona as emotional armor against the kids who’ve made fun of him for years. He’s beautifully drawn by the creative team and Tope, and feels real from the instant we see him in a video where he expounds on the virtues of exotic teas. But where Dylan Maxwell was a comic engine for the first season who only in time turned out to be tragic, Kevin starts out that way, setting a tone for the entire story around him.
It doesn’t help that Peter and Sam barely feel like part of the show for the season’s first half. This time, they don’t have pre-existing relationships with any of their subjects and have no real character arc to speak of. (It’s implied that one or both of them has a crush on Chloe, but that never goes anywhere.) Perhaps because the show has nothing new to say about them, they’re simply not in the episodes as much, especially at first. And Peter’s hyperbolic narration of and reaction to the twists and turns of these ridiculous, gross stories are the series’ most important comic ingredient. There’s some of that in here, as the partners fixate on tiny clues like the Turd Burglar’s use of emoji (Peter: “The grimace face felt like a huge break!”), or Sam acts out, at length, different ways a person might shit their pants as they analyze footage of Kevin during the Brown-Out. There’s just not nearly as much as you’d expect based on the first season, or might have hoped for when you heard the premise of the second.
Emotionally and sociologically, it’s a much more complex story, with a lot of insightful and empathetic things to say about a generation of kids who have grown up with social media as part of their lives. And characters like Kevin, Chloe and school basketball star DeMarcus (Melvin Gregg) come to life in poignant and unexpected ways, even considering the emotional pivot Season One took by the end.
The beauty of the dick-drawing mystery, though, was that it was equal parts comedy and tragedy, while the Turd Burglar story is weighted much more towards the sad parts. That original balance was a miracle and maybe not something that could be easily repeated. Ordinarily, you might expect the creators to lean into the sillier and more quotable parts of the show, since they made Vandal a phenomenon well before anyone started to feel sorry for Dylan. Instead, they went the opposite way. If the result is not as exponentially potent as the combination of the two was last year, it’s still awfully good. Just go in prepared for fewer jokes and more gravitas, even in a story about feces.
What’s that old saying? Pooping is easy. Comedy is hard.