Doing a second season of American Vandal seemed, for lack of a better analogy, like spray-painting a dick on a perfectly good car. The show’s first season arrived last September like a unicorn riding a lightning bolt, and even after critics began to shout its praises, the idea took a while to sink in: a show about what? By who? For real?
Getting viewers to underestimate it was part of American Vandal’s plan. Like unfairly accused dick-drawer Dylan Maxwell, the show, created by Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, presented itself as likably lowbrow, a slow pitch lobbed at a soft target. But while you were busy guffawing at CSI-style re-creations of teenage handjobs, the show morphed into a sly critique of long-form crime documentaries and an of-the-moment exploration of how teens’ lives are shaped and recorded by social media. The Nana’s party reconstruction, where the path of a telltale can of spray paint through an all-night rager is traced by stitching together Instagram and Snapchat posts, was both thrilling and subtly frightening, a demonstration of just how much of our selves we leave deposited in bits and bytes all over the digital domain.
American Vandal’s second season arrives with the opposite problem of its first: The worry isn’t that people might not take it seriously, but that the show might listen to them. And that’s reflected in Season 2’s choice of central figure, who’s not a likable burnout but a pretentious eccentric who speaks in a voice reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman and makes YouTube videos discoursing on the finer points of tea drinking. Like Dylan, Kevin McClain, played by Travis Tope, is an easy target when the authorities come looking for the culprit who spiked the lemonade in the St. Bernardine’s lunchroom with laxative, resulting in a schoolwide catastrophe promptly dubbed “the Brownout.” But a childhood friend is convinced of Kevin’s innocence, and so, having seen the first season of American Vandal, she calls in Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) to investigate.
The moment in American Vandal’s first season when Sam and Peter’s in-progress documentary went from class project to viral sensation is the starting point for Season 2: Peter reveals that their series was eventually bought by Netflix, which explains how two high school filmmakers got the budget for elaborate computer graphics. (Some fans, he admits, still prefer the earlier, less polished version.) That extra level of metatextuality, processing the runaway success of Yacenda and Perrault’s show through Sam and Peter’s in-universe fame, sets the table for a season in which teenage self-consciousness and social media self-presentation are joined in an escalating feedback loop. Like anything that happens in public, the Brownout is broadcast to the world via livestream and video clips, no amount of intestinal distress being sufficient to prevent teenagers from pulling out their phones. (The low-res quality of the resulting footage mercifully keeps the gross-out factor low.) But it’s only when the perpetrator starts tagging victims’ Instagram posts that the students of St. Bernardine’s learn their chosen moniker: the Turd Burglar. (Another layer of meta: You can follow the actual account.)
The ease with which the Turd Burglar identifies the victims indicates that it’s someone close to the school: if not a student, then perhaps a teacher, or the custodial worker known only as Hot Janitor. Sam and Peter’s investigation takes them deep into the social dynamics of St. Bernardine’s, including in a detailed 3D diagram of which students sit where in the lunchroom. Like the first season, the second mirrors too closely the structure of Netflix’s legit investigative series, where abortive leads are pursued for the sake of short-term suspense rather than cut out entirely, but the wide range of suspects reflects the universal truth that no one in high school has it well enough off to be above the desire for vengeance. The Turd Burglar’s crimes continue along with the investigation, teased before the fact and gloated over after, in new and more innovative ways to cover the student body in shit. (One, it feels not too spoilerish to say, involves a piñata in the shape of Kurt Vonnegut.) And Sam and Peter keep digging up dirt, detailing how Kevin went from friendly kid to ostracized teen, crafting a persona that made his freakishness a choice rather than an unwanted label. By the end, you’re desperate for him to drop the act even for a minute, to hear his real voice rather than the one he’s adopted.
American Vandal’s second season has bigger ideas than its first, and the turn toward wistfulness in its final episode feels less forced this time around. But apart from Kevin and DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), a black star athlete bused into wealthy St Bernadine’s from a poor neighborhood, Hoop Dreams–style, few of its characters are as well-drawn, and the use of more experienced actors—cast members have recurred on Boardwalk Empire, Sweet/Vicious, UnReal, and L.A. Law—robs it of some of the first season’s amateur authenticity. It’s better than anyone could have expected, but a little less than they might have hoped.
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