Opinion | A+ for ‘American Vandal’
Vicious high-school bullying continues to shake up season 2 of 'American Vandal'
Kids are crueller than us.
Jenna Hawthorne, the wealthiest girl in school, has a glossy Instagram feed with professionally photographed holidays and helicopter rides, but Kendall Jenner ruins everything. Hawthorne posts a picture with the model as if posing with a friend, but—when the un-cropped image is made public—we learn she lined up for 5 hours to get the picture. This makes her a school-wide subject of ridicule even though this picture, of a young fan with a star, may be the least artificial thing on her feed.
American Vandal is about looking closer. Created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, this Netflix series blew us away with its first season, a highly committed parody of the true-crime documentary genre, about a student expelled for spray-painting penises on cars in the faculty parking lot. The show is presented to us as a sincere but indulgent student-made documentary about a wrongfully victimized child, and now it only feels more real.
In the new season, Netflix is blamed as an enabler. We are told they gave these buzz-earning documentarians a greater budget and perhaps too much slickness. Early fans complain how the production upgrades “robbed the Vimeo version of its original charm". There was, of course, never a more raw version of this fictitious documentary, but its existence, Netflix’s opportunistic upscaling of a popular student project, and this I-saw-it-first complaint all seem incredibly plausible.
This year, our intrepid documentarians Peter and Sam are at the upper-class St Bernardine school after a disgusting event where a schoolful of students drank lemonade laced with laxatives. This awful afternoon of uncontrollable diarrhoea and pants-soiling is quickly christened The Brownout.
Kids give vicious names. Based on something basic—a slip-up, a sweater, a stammer—the school nickname becomes a tenacious bullying tool, and American Vandal points out the horror of a time when name-calling coexists with hashtags. There is a perpetual chronicle of abuse, and shame is not allowed to fade. The teasing may have been way back in sixth grade, but Throwback Thursday is always around the corner. The internet reminds.
The suspects are fascinating. Kevin McClain is a tea-fetishizing young man who wears a newsboy cap but struggles to name a poet. “Kevin’s weird but it’s not like he’s on the spectrum," explains a fellow student. “He’s weird on purpose." Then there’s basketball superstar DeMarcus Tillman, royalty in a Catholic school where sports are given right of way. “The gym is like the school’s chapel," says another student. “And this school has an actual chapel."
These talking heads make American Vandal shine. Young people who routinely blabber into Facebook Live videos have no hesitation glibly confessing to a documentary camera. With a lens trained this firmly on subjects this young, we find actual knowledge—never compose a reply in the app you’re messaging on, but instead “you draft in the Notes app. That way they don’t see the dot dot dot"—and can appreciate the intricacy of a high school mystery. Students lie for the damnedest reasons. When everything is a trigger, anything can be a motive.
With this stunning season, American Vandal may well be called the finest (live-action) Netflix original. The events are not trivial this time. A series of scatological attacks has traumatized a school. It is an act of terror. This second season is a masterclass in plotting. Twisted by the impulsive and unpredictable behaviour of the students, the narrative fits into place with the unlikely elegance of a complicated Coen Brothers plot told in reverse. The herrings are not red.
The actors are uniformly super. In one of many lessons American Vandal holds for journalists, Peter and Sam stay out of the spotlight and train it solely on the subjects. Travis Tope, who plays Kevin, has Tim Curry lips—red enough to suggest lipstick, they curl into a Cheshire smirk—and he appears capable of anything. Melvin Gregg plays DeMarcus with an irresistible (and oblivious) Will Smith swagger, like a Fresh Prince of Basketball.
American Vandal should not be dismissed as parody, because its investigative lens is impressively authentic. In the lives of these young people—who bond over the same critiques of Rick And Morty—the murder of reputation, the killing of credibility, is cardinal sin. This may be classified as comedy, but what the show reveals about oversharing, social affectation and dependence on online affirmation, is undeniably real. We must pay closer attention. Kids are cleverer than us.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen