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AMERICAN VANDAL on Netflix is a clever satire about invasive serial documentaries…

Posted on September 18th, 2017
Posted on September 18th, 2017

by Coop Cooper

Even with its outrageous premise, “American Vandal” might fool a few people – at first – into thinking its actually a documentary thriller such as “Making a Murderer” or the hit podcast “Serial”. This fictional witty satire from Netflix takes the serialized documentary approach in order to shine a mildly comedic light on high school social classes, school board politics and the damage caused by airing everyone’s dirty laundry in public.

A high school in Oceanside, California becomes a hotbed of controversy when images of phalluses are spray painted on twenty seven faculty cars while on school grounds. The dim-witted, senior class prankster, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), is summarily expelled for his previous history of drawing obscene objects around school, and because he cannot adequately prove his whereabouts during the time of the incident. Sophomore and amateur filmmaker, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and his sidekick Sam (Griffin Gluck) suspect Dylan’s innocence and launch a serialized documentary project in an attempt to discover the truth. However, Peter’s lack of experience and questionable investigative practices threaten to turn a tense situation into a public relations nightmare for his school and fellow classmates.

American Vandal” emulates the documentary genre so closely and the acting is so good, it doesn’t feel like a comedy or a parody until it begins to show obvious cracks that would break the audiences’ suspension of disbelief. The film crew releases damaging footage to the public, even within the first episode, that would get kids in serious legal trouble for drug use and mischievous behavior and the school would have been liable since the filmmakers were filming on school property and using school equipment. The production would have been immediately shut down, no teachers or administrators would have ever granted them interviews and students/teachers would have been in serious trouble for what they said/did on camera. There is even a scene at a house party where a student seems to die from alcohol poisoning only to be resuscitated by a fellow classmate who knows CPR. Yet no consequences from this footage being released was ever addressed and there seemed to be no aftermath to this incident. This is where “American Vandal” fails.

Despite that, it succeeds in every other level of satire it was aiming for. While the bumbling filmmakers are technically savvy and seem to have professional-level filming/audio/editing abilities, their enthusiasm and lack of social experience has them exposing embarrassing scandals amongst the students and teachers which make them heroes in some circles and pariahs in others. Their uncanny ability to string together thin, circumstantial evidence into vast conspiracy theories is both immature and at the same time, impressive and hilarious. It’s only when the filmmakers reveal that they could also be suspects, and start investigating each other, that they end up becoming a part of the story as well. The series goes a long way to poke holes in this type of aggressively subjective documentary journalism and how it can inadvertently impact and hurt others.

The story of how “American Vandal” came to be is an amusing one. The show’s star, Jimmy Tatro, was playing a role on “22 Jump Street” and pitched the idea for the series to Jonah Hill while on set, which supposedly launched Hill into fits of laughter. Hill declared the idea would make Tatro famous and the rest is history. Tatro’s irritating, yet sympathetic character, Dylan, is the anchor of the show who goes through a wide range of development over the course of the series. While everyone sees him as a clown and a burnout who spends his free time making “Jackass”-style videos with his no-good friends, he really just wants to go to college to be close to his girlfriend. Within “American Vandal” are many dramatic and moving moments when you see these characters hurting and you suddenly feel bad for them. This is an impressive feat for a satire.

American Vandal” is almost too clever for its own good. It has difficulty balancing its absurd comedic tone with its realistic documentary style, its obscene computer-generated reenactments and its over-the-top conspiracies that make nearly every character presented as a suspect. It’s also very moving, smart and entertaining, ending abruptly without too much resolution as most real documentaries of this type would. It’s a fun experiment that works and keeps you engaged through its various twists and cliffhangers. I hope Netflix takes more risks with projects like “American Vandal”.

Rating: 3 and ½ out of 5

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