Who drew the dicks? Netflix original American Vandal answers this question in a mockumentary style.
“Who drew the dicks?” is the question posed by American Vandal, one of Netflix’s newest original TV series. Somewhere towards the later episodes of the show I actually found myself muttering that to myself: “Who drew the dicks?” I thought about the suspects, the validity of their alibis and the opportunities they would have had to commit the crime. But more importantly, I thought about who spray painted huge red penises all over the cars of the faculty of Hanover High.
American Vandal is about senior Dylan Maxwell, recently expelled from Hanover High after being suspected of vandalizing 27 teachers’ cars with huge red dicks. This silly story is told very seriously by Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, two aspiring sophomore filmmakers who try to clear Dylan’s name by creating a documentary. Their documentary, American Vandal, is what we watch as the boys interview teachers, students and professionals, hoping to get closer to the truth.
The actual showrunners of American Vandal put a lot of effort into making sure that you believe you’re actually watching a student documentary. The first season is riddled with animated graphics, demonstrations and recreations; even the title sequence credits the characters in the show as the crew. While other TV shows use social medial like Twitter and Instagram as plot devices to decide who is popular and who is crushed under heavy social scrutiny, Vandal understands how it actually works, especially in a high school setting. It all works really well; it’s easy to get lost in the high school drama. The showrunners have done their job; one of the first things that comes up if you type “Is American Vandal,” into Google is, “Is American Vandal real?”
With a premise as ridiculous as “Who drew the dicks?” the show is comedy based, bolstered by how seriously the characters of the show will say such blatantly stupid things. There’s a farcical sense of humor every time Peter says “drew the dicks” or examines a suspect or witness with such unnecessary scrutiny. The show knows how absurd the vandalism is: penis related wordplay and dirty jokes does also comprise some of the humor. Even the episode titles are dick double entendres; the showrunners have worked their dick jokes to an almost ridiculous degree.
But in the midst of the farcical comedy Vandal doesn’t lose track of the mystery. The show still remains about Dylan’s wrongful expulsion and Peter and Sam’s desire to clear his name. It progresses through the mystery in a way that makes sense, taking detours to expand on the characters’ backstories and motives. In the first half of the season, the show tackles the four main reasons why the school believes Dylan was the culprit, and the latter half of the season follows Sam and Peter as they start doing their own research and investigations. The first half is more comedic and the second more dramatic, but with each episode the mystery becomes more intriguing. You’ll start to pose theories yourself of who could have drawn the dicks. And even though it’s easy to laugh at how seriously the characters are taking the situation, you’ll find yourself taking it seriously as well.
Vandal also succeeds in its ability to create realistic characters. I couldn’t help but compare the characters in the show to people I actually knew in high school. And in a sense, it feels like you know these characters already because of how realistic they are. In your four year high school experience, you definitely knew someone like Alex Trimboli or a teacher like Mr. Kraz.
The character who really shines, however, is wrongly accused Dylan Maxwell. He’s a stoner burnout who is pretty much harmless, even if he wasn’t necessarily a great student. He’s not the type to vandalize 27 teachers’ cars and cause $100,000 in damages. In the beginning, he’s a source of a lot of the comedy. His antics with his group of friends “The Wayback Boys” and the videos he posts to his YouTube channel are ridiculously hilarious. But he’s also a tragic character at heart; as his friends go to school, he has to wait at home and reluctantly work as a Postmates delivery man. He hated school; but now that he can’t attend he just wants to go back. He’s totally helpless in his situation, and through Jimmy Tatro’s performance you can see the sadness behind his eyes as he talks to the cameras about his situation.
“Clean Up,” American Vandal’s final episode, is probably the most memorable episode of television I’ve seen this year, and it’s where the show falls into place. It’s masterful in its execution and the questions it raises not just in the sense of plot, but also in its themes — our relationship with social media, the way a young person’s life is defined, reputation and our ability to judge people at first glance. “Clean Up” is the show’s best episode without a doubt, and it’s worthy of some Emmy attention. After seeing our main cast grow since episode one — the way Peter asks questions, the way Sam proposes theories and the way Dylan chooses to define himself — the show ends on an unexpected emotional gut punch I don’t think I’ll ever forget. In its final moments, the episode cuts back to its first moments where Peter asks Dylan who he is. “I don’t know dude I’m just Dylan. What do you mean who am I? That’s a stupid question,” Dylan says, looking at Peter past the camera. “He’s right, that is a stupid question,” Peter says in a voice over. At its core, Vandal wants to criticize the way we represent ourselves and the way others view us in our modern world. It succeeds, without a doubt, and it’s because of this that American Vandal transcends parody and becomes satire. And that’s a lot coming from a show that’s centered around someone spray painting dicks on cars.
Mateo Flores is a first-year Writing for Film, Television, and Emerging Media major who did not draw dicks on the backseat of his schoolbus.