“American Vandal” Is a Brilliant Mockumentary

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Netflix is becoming known for more than its first-rate dramas. You can now add edgy new comedies to the mix as well, as evidenced by “American Vandal,” a brilliant mockumentary. This 8-part series is a wonderful parody of the true crime investigative dramas along the lines of “Making a Murderer” and “Serial.”

“American Vandal” is a brilliant satire of true crime investigative dramas

First and most importantly, “American Vandal” brilliantly captures the rhythm and cadence of those nonfiction true crime dramas. There are so many throwaway lines that have been so common in these shows that they are now cliché – “they got the wrong guy” and “everybody thinks I did it” are just two of the most obvious. “American Vandal” has characters intone those phrases with so much seriousness that you’re tempted to burst out laughing.

Here’s the thing – the brilliant joke at the center of this mockumentary is that a high school senior (Dylan Maxwell, played by Jimmy Tatro) has been expelled for drawing graphic, obscene images of cartoon phalluses on 27 faculty member cars. He, of course, claims steadfastly that he’s not the one behind this outrageous act. That leads a high school sophomore filmmaker (Peter Maldonado, played by Tyler Alvarez) to explore whether there might be a deeper, darker secret at the school that people are trying to cover up.

That leads to a whole slew of outrageous scenes, such as where characters examine the cartoon phalluses reputedly drawn on the cars with the cartoon phalluses that class clown Dylan Maxwell is fond of drawing. They find that the images are similar, but not exact matches. So is it possible that someone else might have really drawn them and then blamed Dylan?

“American Vandal” mockingly asks, “Who Drew the Dicks?”

You can immediately see how ridiculous this becomes. It is an 8-part comedy about, yes, dicks. It is filled with adolescent dick jokes. Characters call them “dicks” right there in the movie. Characters talk about “ball hairs.” And this is not a mistake – Netflix very much wants you to be having this conversation about dicks. The hashtag for this comedy is, in fact, #WhoDrewtheDicks. According to one media critic, dicks are mentioned or shown at least 1,000 times over the course of the 8-part series. You can not escape these dicks.

But here’s the thing – this is not a “dick movie.” At least, not one that we’re used to seeing and enjoying. The two creators of “American Vandal,” Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, have a long history with two sophomoric humor websites (Funny or Die, College Humor), but they promised Netflix that this would not be just one long, extended “dick joke sketch.” Instead, it is meant to be more subtle, more biting, and thus, more brilliant.

Take that hashtag, for example. “Who drew the dicks?” has the potential to be a laughably bad line in the show, but it’s used in such a way that it brilliantly lampoons other shows that have used similar types of lines to attract visitors (“Who killed Laura Palmer?” is just one example). Thus, Netflix is lampooning more than just “dick movies,” it is going much further afield to lampoon other genres of films. This is brilliant stuff.

“American Vandal” is a brilliant example of narrative storytelling

But all of that dick humor would have gone to waste if there wasn’t an engrossing plot at the center. If that wasn’t, who would stick around for 8 episodes of dick jokes? But you do want to find out who’s responsible for this phallic graffiti, and each new episode comes with twists and turns.

One of them – spoiler alert! – involves the narrator. It turns out that this high school student might not be telling the whole story, or at least, presenting facts from a certain point of view. That helps to keep the viewer off-balance, as well as to cast doubt on everything that we’ve seen already. As a result, we’re kept guessing until the very end about the true identity of this American vandal.

“American Vandal” offers an authentic portrayal of American high school

Moreover, “American Vandal” gets top ratings for its realistic portrayal of high school. The characters are so believable, and the acting is so good, that it can be hard to forget that these are indeed actors and actresses playing the role. According to the film’s creators, that was built into the casting process. They were looking for people who could be believable in these roles. They wanted to capture the look and feel of a typical American high school.

“American Vandal” is a bold example of a comedy made for millennials

In many ways, Netflix was bold to green light this mockumentary. For one, mockumentaries aren’t known for being hits with movie audiences. Other than a few – such as “Spinal Tap” – how many mockumentaries could you name off the top of your head? But this 8-part series is bold for another reason – it is a brilliant exploration of millennial comedy.

Let’s face it – it’s difficult for many filmmakers to connect with the younger millennial generation. For members of older Generation X, a film like “The Hangover” is great comedy. But what do members of the millennial generation consider to be funny?

It’s no mistake, then, that the two creators behind this NSFW comedy are also veterans of Funny or Die and College Humor, both of which cater to young millennials. This is the direction Netflix wants to go with this 8-part fictional documentary, and the fact that millennials are connecting with it is proof of its brilliance. People are actually using the hashtag #WhoDrewTheDicks across social media. On Rotten Tomatoes, “American Vandal” has a nearly perfect 96% freshness rating.

“American Vandal,” then, is eminently binge-worthy. You can try to watch all 8 episodes in a single weekend, or you can spread them out over a period of 8 weeks, as you were encouraged to do with “Serial” or other investigative dramas that “American Vandal” so brilliantly spoofs. But you won’t be able to stop until you find out the true identity of the person who defaced 27 faculty member cars with a bunch of crudely-drawn dicks.

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