The first season of “American Vandal” came out of nowhere. It was a surprisingly smart, well-observed parody of true-crime documentaries that blended low-brow comedy with high-concept execution. The result was a deadly funny, pitch-perfect representation of low-stakes high-school drama writ large.
Showrunners Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda had a high bar to clear for season two, which premiered on Netflix Sept. 14. For the most part they succeed, even if the premise feels less fresh the second time out.
Riding a wave of notoriety after Netflix picked up their first investigation — things get a little meta in the opening minutes of the first episode — intrepid junior investigators Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) have taken a new case at a new high school in the affluent Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Wash. (The hows and whys of these high schoolers’ ability to spend work on this project are waived away with an explanation that this is their “senior project.”)
The story unfolds at St. Bernadine high school, a posh private Catholic school, where a series of feces-based pranks have rocked the school community. (Be advised, there is a lot of graphic scatalogical humor this season.)
The perpetrator, who goes by the alias of the Turd Burglar, eventually confesses, but something doesn’t add up. It’s up to Peter and Sam, then, to find the truth. Along the way, they uncover a web of deceit, manipulation and cover-ups that go all the way to the top of the school administration.
In light of current events, there are some initial feelings of queasiness I had to overcome before I could get into this season. Videos of the gruesome aftermath of the “Brownout” — a prank in which a cafeteria lemonade dispenser is dosed with laxatives — feels uncomfortably familiar to the chaos following a school shooting. There’s also the difficulty right now of finding humor in a Catholic school being complicit in a cover-up. The show is not to blame for any of this, and to its credit, it doesn’t attempt to make light of either of these evergreen tragedies.
But, while the show keeps things light, the jokes don’t come as frequently as last season. Part of that might be the novelty of the mockumentary schtick wearing off. Still, the humor remains sharp as it continues to critique true-crime docs.
Gluck’s Sam also provides excellent comic relief as Peter’s number two (lol) and co-producer. His Jim Halpert-style looks to the camera and unwavering defense of poop jokes makes him an entertaining wild card.
As a survivor of 12 years of Catholic School, this season of “American Vandal” hits close to home. The privilege, entitlement, favoritism and hypocrisy on display from students, faculty and administrators is eerily familiar and irksome. As is the compulsion to preserve a school’s reputation over doing what’s right, and the exaltation of athletic programs and their untouchable student athletes.
Once the complex nature of the Turd Burglar’s master plan is fully revealed, the school must reckon with some uncomfortable revelations. The season closes on a melancholy note as it ruminates on the story’s big, albeit obvious lesson: despite how popular and confident people may appear, or how amazing their social media feeds make them look, all teenagers feel lonely and isolated at some point.
That may be true, but it’s hardly a trenchant or novel observation. Within the show’s universe — where the documentary was actually directed and produced by a pair of 17-year-olds — that’s good enough; that realization feels world-changing at 17. But once that artifice is stripped away, it’s a facile message that lacks the satirical teeth of the show that delivered it.