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‘American Vandal’, TV’s most compelling mystery

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-09-2017 Raja Sen

Dylan Maxwell is a thick-necked young jock who performs pranks on YouTube. Some are not even pranks. One video, efficiently titled Breadfacing, simply involves Dylan pummelling a loaf of sliced bread with his face. He is a substantially poor student, a habitual and lazy liar and a racist. (“The Chinese are secretive people,” he says, before the Asian student he’s talking about reveals that he’s from Toronto.) Academically and socially speaking, Dylan is incredibly easy to write off, but just because he is a problematic high school child does not mean he should be considered guilty without evidence. Dylan Maxwell has been expelled from high school for spray-painting penises on 27 cars belonging to the faculty.

Created in the style of Sarah Koenig’s talk radio sensation Serial and the runaway hit Making A Murderer, American Vandal is Netflix’s latest investigative true-crime mystery series. With one difference: It isn’t true. And the crime has to do with graffiti and hurriedly scrawled genitalia, not murder. This is parody as it deserves to be, a bawdy joke elevated to thrilling art merely by taking it seriously. This may not lead to a death sentence, but Dylan’s youth is on the line, which leads student journalist Peter Maldonado to try and seek the truth. So what if his measured, mature voice-overs get a little patronizing?

Things do not look good for Dylan, even if the evidence against him is circumstantial. The burden of proof does not rest on the school, and this is principally because Dylan has a history of drawing penises. All over school. During a disciplinary committee hearing, the student is asked, “Have you ever drawn obscene images before?” Dylan shuffles his feet, looks around, and then—with the air of an artist who does many things and refuses to be pigeonholed—says, simply, “I dabble.”

I laughed my head off.

Created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, American Vandal might be one of the best original shows Netflix has made, a fascinating mystery wrapped up in a silly, silly premise but a show that—despite spoofing the true-crime format at every turn—is highly compelling in itself. This is a show grounded in the realities of its chosen world. High school has rarely been as realistically depicted. All the “types” exist but, shorn of style and soundtrack, we get an unfiltered, closer look at the people themselves: from the activist-y girl printing up “Free Dylan” T-shirts to the history teacher who wants, desperately, to be considered cool and thus wants students to look away during his lectures and “tweet something”.

The investigative true-crime format also works superbly with the ubiquitous way teenagers now use technology. One character finds popularity on the live-gaming platform Twitch and uses it as a support system, and even the most idiotic wastrels are savvy enough to create a YouTube presence. At one point the documentarians, trying to find evidence of a conversation at a raging party thrown at a student’s grandmother’s house—“Nana’s party”—reconstruct the evening with forensic precision by putting together all the Snapchat videos from that night and linking them on a timeline. In this age of constantly chronicled images and video, everyone has a camera phone, everyone has a vantage point. (Rashomon would take forever today.)

This, in my opinion, is the only way someone should make Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express again—by giving Poirot a GoPro.

Halfway through the show’s eight episodes, the documentary within the show goes viral. This leads to popularity for the film-maker Peter—who previously never made it to parties or to camp—and sympathy for the accused Dylan, but also to easily hashtagged conspiracy theories and, inevitably, trial by popularity. Also, because of Peter’s unflinching desire for the truth, several lives are affected, like that of the Honors student who lied about drinking 11 beers at one party to further his own legend, when, according to footage and timelines, he nursed the same bottle all night. It’s hilarious stuff but—in the high school world of overnight popularity and easily-applied labels—who made out with who is as important as who stabbed who.

The writing is tight and full of tempting cliffhangers that made me binge the show in one day, and the children are excellent. Jimmy Tatro plays Dylan with a blank vulnerability that makes you want to believe him even while shaking your head at him. He drawls a small swearword like it has five syllables. Tyler Alvarez is great as the self-serious Peter Maldonado, who tries to be objective even at his own expense, yet loses it whenever he learns another kid with the same initials as him somehow did get invited to the parties. It’s not just the two leads, though. The show feels disarmingly authentic, and most of the actors are spot on.

The true-crime genre lends itself well to parody, and it is one thing to take a trivial investigation and treat it with the scrutiny of an unrelenting documentarian, but American Vandal goes beyond a skit, or a half-hour episode. This comedy treats its subject with gravitas. Similar to the way Dear White People, worked better as a show that a movie, the long form, multiple-episode format only makes this mystery—the mystery of 27 penises painted in a parking lot—more rewarding. Once in a while, size does matter.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

He tweets at @rajasen

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