Jason McNicholas 2018-09-26

Refusing the rest on the laurels of its highly successful first season, American Vandal returns to investigate an even more childish crime than the penis graffiti of last year. The students of St. Bernadine’s, a private Catholic school in Seattle are being terrorized by multiple faeces-related pranks by a mysterious online figure known only as the Turd Burglar. And so the question that must be answered this time is, just who is the Turd Burglar?

Few shows get into the minds of teenagers like American Vandal and for that, it should be commended. From the insecurity and tribalism of high school to the casual cruelty that infects social media, the students of St. Bernadine’s feel as true-to-life as the subjects of any real documentary would. Over the course of eight episodes, Vandal crafts a detailed world with its own history and it’s these touches that give the world they lived-in feel it needs to seem like an accurate representation of a . For example, what may seem like an odd student’s stunt for attention can be revealed as a reaction to an incident in middle school that took place years before. Another student’s entire public persona is discovered as being a clever ruse hiding something more sinister. Similar to an actual high school, this is a cut-throat world where friendships begin and end over silly misunderstandings, where social standings can rise and plummet by the grace of your most recent post.

Much like a real documentary, American Vandal starts broad and deepens its focus as it goes on, digging into the institutional problems of the school and the varied idiosyncrasies of its faculty and student body. This season may not be quite as funny as the first (penises are just funnier than poop, I guess) but it’s far more ambitious in terms of theme and the social issues it chooses to highlight. Privilege, cyberbullying and class all find their way under the show’s microscope, examining how these issues factor into the school experience. Perhaps the show’s greatest success, however, is the fact that it once again crafts a compelling mystery around the most juvenile of circumstances, in this case, what amounts to a four-hour poop joke.

As with the first season, American Vandal presents us with a huge cast of unique characters, any of which could turn out to be the culprit. Was it DeMarcus Tillman, the de facto king of the school who unknowingly insults you with a smile? Or maybe Kevin “fruit ninja” McClain, the condescending oddball who has fruit thrown at him on a daily basis?  Could it be a member of the tight-knit basketball team that reeks of toxic masculinity?

Vandal utilizes all the tricks of a real crime documentary and will have you guessing right up until the final reveal. The cliffhanger ending of every episode will leave you confidant that you’ve solved the mystery only for a key piece of Snapchat footage or talking head interview to completely change your mind later on.

A key difference in the approach of season two is one of tone. Season one saw Dylan Maxwell catch the blame mainly due to his reputation as an immature class clown and spent much of its time scrutinizing how the labels students place on one another can affect their behavior and self-image. This season, on the other hand, goes down the conspiracy road, depicting a wealthy school with a reputation of sports excellence to protect, in desperate need of a patsy on which to place the blame. As a result, we get a picture of a darker  teenage experience for the characters, where even the very school they attend seems to be against them and has a history of double standards when it comes to doling out punishment. In St. Bernadine’s, there’s a very clear distinction in the treatment of those who bring in donations via their sports acumen and those who do not. Imagine 13 Reasons Why’s Liberty High but a lot less depressing.

However, its’ in the finale episode that the shows reveals the true intent of the entire season all along, once again upending our expectations. What seemed to be merely a gripping mystery with childish humour turns into a timely and resonant commentary on the current generation and its complex relationship with social media. In a lesser show, this would come across as overly preachy or critical but here, its handled with the same steady hand that gave a character calling themselves the Turd Burglar the intimidating aura of a serial killer. Melvin Gregg deserves special mention here for his funny, layered turn as DeMarcus, underscored beautifully by a moving monologue he delivers in the final minutes that completely recontextualises how you view the character. American Vandal confidently builds what it has done before to present a funny, sympathetic and multi-faceted take on the mind of the modern teenager that sets the bar for any other show wishing to do the same.

9/10

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