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American Vandal - Season 2 - Advance Preview

The first season of Netflix's American Vandal took me and many others by surprise: first by its mere existence and cheeky playfulness and parody, then by its larger dramatic ambitions. Over the course of that season the show created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda morphed from being a smart mockumentary satire of true crime documentaries to being the best and most insightful series about teen life to come along in years.

Still, despite the later parts of that first season being surprisingly devastating and tragic, the early episodes were truly hilarious at points, the show lulling us into thinking the show was one thing when really it wanted to be so much more. Now the show returns for a sophomore run of episodes, without the element of surprise, and with everyone knowing what it's truly capable of.

In its second season the show has switched location, with Peter Modanado and Sam Ecklund (Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck, respectively), fresh off the success of the first American Vandal, being called to a prestigious private Catholic school, to investigate the culprit behind a series of poo-related crimes, starting with "The Brown Out", where the cafeteria's lemonade was spiked with strong laxatives, leading to the entire student body pooing uncontrollably in the hallways. The person behind it all is a mystery, going by the name The Turd Burglar on Instagram, where they post warnings and then gloat about their attacks.

This premise seems ripe for comedy, but outside of some jokes sprinkled throughout (particularly earlier in the season), the show mostly takes these crimes seriously, even more seriously than the vandalism in season 1. The reason why: while it may seem silly, the show consistently reminds us of how dangerous this year's prank really was, and how people could have been seriously hurt.

This year, American Vandal often barely resembles a comedy. Gone are the hilarious CGI recreations of events from season 1 (explained in the show by Netflix becoming a character, coming on board as the show became a viral hit and then both giving Peter and Sam a budget to do such recreations and greenlighting a season 2) and there isn't even anything this year quite as formally showy as the recreation of "Nana's Party" purely from cell phone footage. Instead, we get sparse re-enactments of events done by actors, their faces kept in shadow or off screen, the show choosing to forgo a lot of this to instead dig deep into its new characters.

Just like last year, Peter and Sam seek to explore the student who is believed by the school to be the culprit. This time, its Kevin McClane (Travis Tope) a nerdy, attention-seeking lad who is the butt of many jokes and never seems to truly realize it, all the while desperately wanting people to truly see him and enjoy his company. There's a lot of circumstantial evidence that points to Kevin being the Turd Burglar, and he even confesses to the crime and is expelled, but Peter and Sam have their doubts about the validity of the confession, as well as the evidence.

The other student who gets as much attention this season as Kevin is basketball star DeMarcus Tillman(Melvin Gregg), who quickly becomes a prime suspect in Peter and Sam's investigation. Unlike Jimmy Tatro's Dylan Maxwell last season, neither Kevin or DeMarcus start out as comedic characters: they're hardly ever treated with anything but seriousness. Kevin is instantly a more sympathetic figure, but as the season wears on it strips both characters down, bearing their souls, their insecurities, everything. Both are so well-drawn, and so well played by both actors that when the season finale hits, you'll feel like a sledgehammer has been swung into your chest.

If I have one criticism of the show this season, it's of its use of Peter and Sam. They are our protagonists, and yet unlike last season they are given very little to do dramatically this year. Their dynamic is still delightful, yet throughout this season they feel at a remove from the drama they're documenting, never becoming truly emotionally entangled. They are constantly conflicted about how to feel about certain people, and certainly seem to make friends with some of their subjects, but the season never attempts anything with them on the level of the complicated, awkward and oddly endearing relationship between Peter and Dylan from season 1, to cite just one example.

This is a minor issue however, because both characters at least serve as entertaining guides into the new world the show has chosen to explore, a prism through which Perrault and Yacenda effortlessly construct a web of characters as complex and nuanced as that that was created last season. The world feels fully realized, the characters are engrossing, and the mystery is immediately gripping, only becoming more so as the season wears on. By the last couple of episodes, you'll find yourself desperate for answers, riveted and devastated by each new curve ball the writers throw, each one making another piece expertly fall into place.

The show has also not lost its touch when it comes to exploring issues inseparable from the modern life of a teenager, with social media and its many dangers and virtues deftly woven into the plot, integral to the season's final message. More than any other show on TV right now, American Vandal most keenly understands the allure of documenting your life - or at least the good parts of it - and putting it online for everyone to see. It understands the relationship between who a person truly is in reality, and who they are online, the only reality that seems to matter now. Are we the person we are in school, or are we the person smiling in those pictures? The answer is a complicated one, because no matter where we are, we're playing a role.

Ultimately, the second season of American Vandal is a triumph; in many ways, it's better than the first season. The show had a lot to live up to, and it succeeded not by trying to replicate everything that worked about season 1, but by picking one thing that worked and leaning further into it. This might mean that the new season won't have as broad an appeal, but it's more serious tone works to its advantage, delivering a thought-provoking and engrossing character-based mystery with an emotionally rewarding conclusion.

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