If there’s one genre that rose in popularity since the start of streaming services it would be that of true crime. Back in 2004, the original true crime docu-series was released as The Staircase caused households everywhere to dive into the evidence of the case and come up with their own theories. This fascination with being amateur couch bound detectives was renewed when the Netflix series Making a Murderer become an international sensation.
Of course this spawned a wave of parodies as TV series, new and returning, made sure to include some form of true crime narrative in their show. The two most successful attempts have been the true crime episode in the current season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the surprise hit American Vandal, which just released its second season. Could it prove to be the quintessential true crime mockumentary show that others would base themselves off of?
The main story of season two revolves around Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund as they look into a crime at a private Catholic high school. The new case deals with the school’s lemonade which has been contaminated with laxatives with the culprit calling themselves ‘The Turd Burglar.’ After two more incidents, the school realizes they are dealing with a serial vandal and accuse Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) of the crimes. Kevin’s old friend Chloe Lyman (Taylor Dearden) believes he is innocent and reaches out to the makers of the hit documentary American Vandal. Peter and Sam take it upon themselves to help exonerate Kevin and discover what other secrets this prestigious Catholic school could be hiding.
The first season of American Vandal was a surprise success thanks to its central mystery being a way to explore the complexities of teen culture in the high school jungle. However, when a second season was announced with the central focus being on a poop crime it seemed like this mockumentary would be playing its narrative more for laughs than a serious commentary like its predecessor. Luckily, that wasn’t the case as this season, aptly being called “Number Two,” not only expands on its look at the teen psyche, but manages to do so in an inventive way with a chapter out of Black Mirror’s book.
This season takes its immature premise and creates quite a dark and deeply uncomfortable situation that parallels a lot of other issues in our society. Kevin McClain claims his confession was coerced, similarly to the forced confession and malicious interrogation of Brendan Dassey in Making a Murderer. This along with the first crime’s depiction (“The Brownout”) where various homemade videos and security footage feel a little too similar to a school shooting shows the lengths that this true crime show will go to in order to get its message across. This doesn’t even including the cyber-bullying and catfishing themes as well as iCloud leak subplot that also emerge throughout the season showing how difficult it is to be a teen in the age of technology.
Beyond the darker themes, this murder mystery is quite entertaining. The narrative may take a few episodes to finally get going, due in part to Peter and Sam’s need to create a foundation of information for this new world they are entering, but once it gets into it, the story has your undivided attention. Its unpredictable twists and turns have a very Agatha Christie feel to them, which you’d expect to be difficult given the topic of the season, but American Vandal manages to mix both seamlessly.
As for the characters, there are a few things missing from this season that could have made it better. For starters, Peter and Sam are essentially reduced to plot devices as the receive no personal storylines. While this could work for an anthology-style show, American Vandal follows the story of these two young men uncovering the truths of various school-related crimes making them the heart of the series. It’s hard to connect with them if they have no personal stakes or growth. Beyond them the other aspect missing was that of any interesting or fleshed out teachers. In the first season, the teachers had their own motives and shady behavior, but at this school they seem to be placeholders if anything.
Luckily the season does have some interesting new characters. Travis Tope as the accused Kevin McClain is the relatable everyman: he is the nerdy loner who isn’t necessarily hated, but more misunderstood. While he isn’t as entertaining as Jimmy Tatro’s Dylan Maxwell, he makes for an easy character to root for. However, the standout of the season is definitely Melvin Gregg. The former Vine star is consistently the funniest aspect of the season as nationally scouted basketball star DeMarcus. His story intertwines with that of the Turd Burglar ending on a very touching revelation that paves the way for future seasons. Personally, I’m hoping to see if American Vandal will tackle school-based crime in a College/University setting up-ing the stakes even further than this season.
This season of American Vandal is an intriguing murder mystery mockumentary that manages to create a thrilling narrative out of its hilariously immature premise. While the returning characters are used more as plot devices, in a story arc that takes a little too long to get going, the narrative takes enough unpredictable twists and turns surrounding some strong, new characters as it pushes its focus away from poop puns to look at the state of teen culture in a thought-provoking and terrifying way. From its Agatha Christie-style story to its deep dive into the effects of technology on society, this season will have you on the edge of your seat so it’s worth the watch.
*American Vandal is now available to stream on Netflix*
What did you think of American Vandal? Was the second season’s story able to sustain itself? Let me know in the comments!
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