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American Vandal - Season 1 - Review

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This year has been an interesting one for Netflix. Seemingly desperate to make their mark as a legitimate network in their own right, they've poured billions of dollars into original content, which has manifested itself in more shows than anyone is able to track hitting the service in lieu of shows from other broadcasters. A new Netflix show was a big event two years ago, but now, with original shows hitting just about every week on top of new movies and stand-up specials, the majority of them slip through the net.

I hope that doesn't turn out to be the case with American Vandal, which hit Netflix on September 15 after a muted publicity campaign and quiet, if positive critical response. In amidst the big blockbuster shows that get all the marketing like The Punisher or Stranger Things, the new comedy-drama turns out to be one of 2017's most pleasant surprises and a worthy addition to the ranks of acclaimed comedies like GLOW, Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

It feels fitting that American Vandal is a Netflix original, because it exists in conversation with one of Netflix's biggest ever hits, the true-crime documentary Making a Murderer, as well as other popular true crime hits like the Serial podcast. American Vandal, to be clear, is not a serious Making a Murderer wannabe - the crime is wholly fictional, and also really stupid, revolving around the vandalising of cars at a high school with penises drawn in spray pant. This question here isn't about a murderer - it's 'who drew the dicks'? And yes, this is something you'll care about by the end.

The devices used in true crime documentaries to portray a realistic and compelling process of investigation involving interviews, alibis, construction of motive and re-enactments of key events are all deployed for a deadpan skewering of overblown high school dramas (my favourite sequence of the season is a full reconstruction of a party through Snapchat videos and 3D reconstructions that follows the progress of a paint can with unremitting seriousness). It goes without saying that the stakes here are not life and death, and that American Vandal seems initially more focused on making you laugh with penis jokes than making you think about the consequences of crime.

Yet as the season goes on, and the two lead characters Peter and Sam delve deeper into the surprisingly complex backdrop of this crime, a strange things happens - American Vandal starts to encourage you to take it seriously.

The juvenile humour recedes into the background, and the show begins to expose the emotionally fraught web of lies and mistakes that surrounds every high school without trying to undercut itself. And, strangely enough, it works. By the time the credits rolled on the finale, I was genuinely interested in this cast of teenage weirdos and their problems, which seemed to be just window-dressing for a long series of dumb and intricate jokes.

The key to this surprisingly strong characterisation lies in the way in which American Vandal treats its starring teen characters. Too often, high school dramas can rely too heavily on elaborately constructed melodrama, pushing characters we're meant to like or dislike while leaving very little grey area as to where the viewer could make up their own minds (even purportedly realistic dramas like 13 Reasons Why box in their characters to certain categories).

It's refreshing, then, that this show just treats the cast of high schoolers as people; messy, flawed, certain they know everything and unwilling to accept their wrong, and trapped within their own worldviews. In short, it shows them to be genuine teenagers of the kind you'd actually see in schools today, rather than an adult's overly polished or idealised version of them as presented from afar.

Dylan Maxwell, the troublemaking student who fulfils the role of the scapegoat that every true crime documentary needs, is a good example of this. Dylan falls initially into a very familiar archetype - the dumb but ultimately lovable jock who possesses a total disregard for authority and a love of incredibly bad pranks (examples shown include 'Baby Farting', and 'Baby Farting 2'). He's someone who seems created specifically as tension-relieving comic relief, especially in the light of narrator Peter's deadly serious commitment to his documentary. But instead of making him just a figure of fun, American Vandal makes him its emotional centre. It's the question of whether the vandalisation allegation will ruin his vague plans for the future with a huge payout that provides the emotional stakes beyond just the characters' belief that the crime matters, providing impetus to Peter's quest to untangle it all.

And it's that initial perception of Dylan as an idiot with a good heart that the show keeps coming back to, and questioning over and over again. Are Dylan's pranks really just a bit of misdirected fun, or are they harmful and dangerous? Is there something deeper and more profound to him than the unassuming surface?

The answers American Vandal provides to those questions are far richer, emotionally, than I would have expected from a show that begins as a joke delivery system, and it asks them of a surprising multitude of characters, even ones who seemingly just play a peripheral role. It's that commitment to digging below the facades that teenagers present to the world just to fit in that makes American Vandal such an involving watch once the initial mystery has been laid out, and I'd honestly appreciate the chance to get to know these people even better in a second season.

That speaks to American Vandal's strongest attribute, and what sets it aside from a lot of teen fiction with more dramatic subject matter, which is its authenticity. The show's homemade documentary style sometimes seems just a little bit too cinematic for a 17 year old, but the way in which Vandal utilises social media and found footage as a means of capturing moments the main characters weren't there to see is genuinely impressive, because it looks and sounds like content that high schoolers would actually produce.

Midway through, the show is released in-universe onto the internet, which gives it an opportunity to comment on the nature of viral videos, and how small and personal projects can metastasise into giant public spectacles for all the world to gawk at and project onto, and the way in which it's done feels like it would actually play out in the real world (there's even glimpses of clickbait headlines about the documentary).

An even smaller thing is how Vandal assembles a cast that actually looks like they could be in high school, complete with pimples and braces - a stark contrast to the glamorous actors in their twenties who squeeze unconvincingly into a school setting in, say, Riverdale (some actors are in their twenties, but in a rarity some, like the actors who portray Sam and Sara Pearson, are exactly the age of their characters). It's a lot of small, careful touches that add up to one of the most authentic portraits of the ins and outs of teenage life on television yet, even amidst the proliferation of the genre.

It'd be wrong, admittedly, to term American Vandal a complete creative success. It's a Netflix show, which means, inevitably, there are some pacing problems. The season runs for a slender eight episodes, but those instalments are generously sized for a comedy, with only one of eight dipping below the half-hour mark. That results in a lot of restating of facts we already know (there's some clips that we see replayed about five or six different times for the same effect across the season), especially in the slightly ropier first half of the season which seems somewhat overeager to convince the viewer to be invested in the big mystery. Once it manages that task, though, the show's momentum does pick up significantly, and the final few episodes are genuinely compulsive stuff.

Netflix have put out a lot of expensive mediocrity this year that has seen plenty of attention, so it would be a shame if one of their best new shows in a while fell by the wayside. American Vandal, despite its seemingly thin premise, is well worth your time, carving out a story that has no right to be as complex or emotionally involving as it ends up being. It's a reminder that sometimes, in the midst of Peak TV, some shows can still take us entirely by surprise and offer something new and refreshing.

Overall Grade: A-

+ Engaging mystery
+ Compelling characters
+ Authentic style

- Too much repetition at times
- Starts a little slow

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