One of my favorite parts of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is when Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist finds out a crucial piece of information to solve the key mystery, and when it happens he slowly removes his glasses. If I could find the clip to put here I would, because it’s amazing. Me and my friend Huston mimic the reaction whenever our minds are blown or we think we’ve uncovered a conspiracy or something like that. I found myself actually taking off my pretend glasses slowly multiple times throughout Netflix’s American Vandal, and it was because I wanted to know who drew all those dicks.
The series from Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault is a mockumentary of sorts, skewering the new wave of true crime docuseries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx, where young meathead prankster Dylan Maxwell has been expelled for allegedly drawing dicks on every single car in the teacher’s parking lot. The evidence against him is overwhelming – a model student has stepped forward claiming to have witnessed Dylan commit the act, a teacher who Dylan has a grudge against had their car hit the hardest with the tires slashed, Dylan had access to the servers to delete the security footage that has gone missing, and he can’t provide a credible alibi for his whereabouts from 2-2:30 pm that fateful day. In steps young filmmaker Peter Maldonado to investigate the case against Dylan with his docuseries, uncovering several holes in the school board’s case against Dylan and some shocking evidence against who may have actually done the vandalism.
The show, if you can’t tell by now, operates on a very juvenile level of humor. I mean, the premise revolves around drawings of dicks. If that’s not for you, that’s fine and I understand, but good lord I’m a sucker for dick humor, especially when it really commits to the humor like American Vandal does. Dicks are hilarious, I don’t know how to put it any other way than that. The show certainly has a stupid sense of humor, but it knows it. The more we learn about Dylan’s background and personality, the more it’s clear the show knows it’s target audience. Dylan is notorious for drawing dicks on the teacher’s whiteboards at every chance he gets, snapchatting “Another day, another dick” to his followers. One of the breakthroughs in proving his innocence is when they realize the dicks drawn on the cars look nothing like the dicks Dylan always draws. The dicks in question have no ball hairs and the tip is drawn differently with a mushroom tip. Dylan always draws his dicks with ball hairs and without a mushroom tip. Yes, I removed my fake glasses slowly at this realization. Dylan and Peter know each other because they are both part of the morning announcements video team. Dylan is a cameraman paired with a female anchor, and he keeps zooming in on the anchor’s boobs whenever they tape.
In the episode where they investigate the testimony from Alex Trimboli – the honor student that fingered Dylan for the crime – they discover he often says stuff that isn’t true, and Peter’s argument against Alex’s reliability revolves around proving the claim that Alex got a handjob from a popular girl false to discredit his character. You spend like 2 episodes diving into the credibility that this kid got a handjob and it’s riveting. There’s also a subplot involving him leaving a voicemail for the old neighbor they’re pranking – his alibi for not being at the school – where he pretends to be Kiefer Sutherland, which is hilarious for two reasons. One, because he’s convinced it’s a bulletproof impersonation when it’s clearly not and two, Kiefer doesn’t have an iconic voice that people would recognize immediately, so the fact that he chooses Kiefer to impersonate just shows how idiotic the whole thing is.
One impressive aspect of the show is how well it imitates the look of other true crime docuseries. There are several moody, slow shots of the school. The opening credits are almost a shot for shot remake of the opening credits to Making a Murderer with it’s glossing over of photographs pertaining to the case and black and white shots of Dylan walking in deep thought, complete with dramatic string music to sell it all. The really impressive thing about this series though, is that I found myself really getting wrapped up in all the different conspiracies. I was watching it feverishly, going back to my whiteboard to figure who in the hell drew the dicks. Like I said earlier, the show had several moments that made me remove my pretend glasses slowly. This show takes you down so many rabbit holes and they’re all captivating. The show takes a meta turn about halfway through when the viral success of the show online bleeds over into the characters real lives and the investigation. One episode is devoted to investigating several fan theories that have emerged. Since it’s scripted, it gets the opportunity that actual docuseries don’t in that it can pivot and adjust to live reactions.
American Vandal has a surprisingly poignant finish. Peter has to reckon with the fact that he ruined a lot of lives of students around him by airing out their dirty laundry to the whole world in pursuit of this investigation. In the final episode, after having been exonerated and now super popular, Dylan finally watches American Vandal – he never watched it because he knew he was innocent, so why would he need to watch a show to know that? The opening is several students talking about how certain they are that Dylan drew the dicks and how stupid he is. It’s in this moment Dylan realizes that all the people who were rooting for him were doing so out of the trendiness of it. It’s a sobering moment for a show with perhaps more mentions of dicks than any other show. It really taps into the psyche of people these days, how they want to latch onto the virality of a movement just so they can look good. Everyone was so quick to demonize him until it became cool not to.
Some of my favorite mystery films/series are not about the mystery itself, but how the mystery and the unknowing affects the characters (Zodiac, Memories of Murder, Prisoners). Strangely enough, you can add a series about figuring out who drew the dicks on all these cars to that list. We may never know who drew the dicks, but we know what the whole thing did to Dylan Maxwell.