On paper, Netflix’s American Vandal sounds like a Funny or Die skit that would be amusing for about seven minutes before the joke wore out its welcome. Full disclosure: I almost dismissed it for precisely that reason, before sitting down to watch the season when Netflix made it available for review.
The show is described by the streaming service as “a half-hour true-crime satire that explores the aftermath of a costly high school prank that left twenty-seven faculty cars vandalized with phallic images.” And, like any good mystery, the show hinges on our interest in answering one simple question: “Who drew the dicks?”
The premise might seem juvenile — and rest assured, the show sure doesn’t skimp on the dick jokes — but it doesn’t take long for American Vandal to hook you, mostly by committing to its premise just as sincerely as the true-crime documentaries it’s parodying, despite being populated by a cast of believably dorky, insecure, sex-obsessed high schoolers.
It’s as if the all-knowing Netflix algorithm stuck Making a Murderer and 13 Reasons Why into a blender and added a shot of Trailer Park Boys. The result is unexpectedly engrossing, infuriatingly addictive, and remarkably self-assured.
It would’ve been easy for co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault to phone this in and settle for creating the Scary Movie version of a true-crime parody, but every script and actor embraces the verisimilitude of what they’ve built here — the stakes might not be life or death, but this prank still has real-world consequences for the kid, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), accused of the crime; and its teenage documentarians, Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), treat the subject with the weight it deserves, even when their nerdy AV project goes viral.
“There aren’t many characters on the show who are funny in their own right; it’s mostly fairly believable kids in a ridiculous situation,” Perrault tells Mashable. “We hope and strive for the humor to come from the seriousness with which these kids take the case.”
Below, Yacenda and Perrault discuss the inspiration behind American Vandal, their unusual shooting process, and their plans for Season 2. There will be vague discussion of the Season 1 ending, but we’ll do you a solid and give you a warning before we get into spoiler territory.
True-crime stories have been a trend for a few years now — was there one particular project that inspired American Vandal, or was it a cumulative thing?
Perrault: Yeah, I guess Making a Murderer was the one that really made me realize that this was a trend, because we had Serial, which we were both fans of, as well as The Jinx, which I believe followed that just after. By the time Making a Murderer came around, it really looked like the genre had made a huge comeback. So that’s when we really took notice and started to talk about doing something on it.
Yacenda: Yeah. I had been a fan. I remember watching Thin Blue Line in film school and that just really sticking with me. So it’s something that I had been interested in for a long time. But it wasn’t until Dan saw Making a Murderer and said to me we should really do something with true crime, ’cause we love parody and we love documentaries too. We did that series of 30 for 30 parodies: 30 for 30: Rocky 4; 30 for 30: Space Jam, where we took stuff very seriously, because we love sports documentaries too. And it just seemed like this was such a fertile playground to play in.
Netflix is obviously an ideal home for this after the success of Making a Murderer and The Keepers. Did you conceive it with the binge model in mind? Because it feels like it could’ve held up to a weekly release structure just as easily.
Perrault: I think more [important] was figuring out a place where we could really have the freedom to make the show we wanted to make. On a very literal level, if we took this to cable, there’s only so much we could do with penis graffiti. For obvious reasons, I think it’s a tough show for network or cable TV. Streaming made sense. Netflix made a lot of sense. They gave us a lot of freedom. The fact that they were known for these true-crime hits that they’ve been rolling out was an added bonus.
I’ll admit, when I first read the longline for the show I thought that there was no way to sustain this premise over eight episodes, but you proved me wrong. Did you have any concerns that maybe the joke would wear itself out before you started writing, or did you have a clear idea of how you would arc it out from the moment you conceived it?
Yacenda: I think the reason we were confident in the idea was that we weren’t just coming at it to make fun of true-crime documentaries. I think that’s when it would’ve gotten really old. But I think we are, as a culture — especially now — infatuated with the idea of injustice and the justice system and whether or not somebody’s falsely accused, and we fancy ourselves the type of person that can watch something and be the judge and the jury and figure out a crime.
So if we really just used what was so good about the documentaries that we love, I think. It’s obviously a risk, but the hope was that you would really care, you would really analyze the prank call records, and you would really analyze the ball hair discrepancy and all of these things. The actual mystery is what’s driving the show.
Beneath the satire, the show is really just an examination of high school life and the everyday microaggressions that teenagers have to deal with — why was it so important to you to keep the writing grounded in that reality, rather than going full farce?
Yacenda: I think mainly [because] it’s funny … so we’re analyzing kids’ text messages and Instagram videos and Snapchats and all of the social media. And if we went in also trying to make those Snapchats as funny as possible, that would’ve kind of been a joke on a joke. But by making it very real and analyzing this as case data the way you would the call records of Adnan Syed in Serial — but they’re really the way modern high schoolers talk — I think we could do something that’s honest and at the same time the funniest version of it.
Perrault: And if you think about it, there aren’t many characters on the show who are funny in their own right. It’s mostly fairly believable kids in a ridiculous situation. The case is ridiculous but Peter and Sam are believable high school sophomores. I mean, Dylan has his prank channel, but really, those pranks are terrible. We hope and strive for the humor to come from the seriousness with which these kids take the case but on their own they tend to be normal kids.
Yacenda: And we had such a talented cast too. These kids are so great. Some of them come from a comedy background. And we would cut some episodes sometimes and we would hear a great punchline or a great tag to a joke, and then it just felt too much like a mockumentary, even though it got a good laugh. Like “oh, that kind of tips the audience and brings it out of documentary language,” and then it’s a mockumentary language, and then it changes why the audience is watching the show. We wanted to really keep the eye on the ball and make it about this investigation. So we ended up cutting some of the funniest jokes, ’cause we wanted all the humor to come from a really real place and the investigation.
As the narrator, Tyler Alvarez has to thread a very delicate needle, because the voice that guides us through the story is so vital — you want that Sarah Koenig energy. Were there specific people you pointed him to in order to nail that sensibility for portraying Peter?
Perrault: We definitely gave him the references ahead of time. We told him that Serial was a major reference as is The Jinx with Andrew Jarecki, but … I think he listened to some of Serial and then decided to hold off until we had finished production because he wanted to sort of make Peter his own. But he definitely had a feel for what these true-crime narrators are like.
And I just gotta say, for the role of Peter, it was extremely tricky casting because we wanted this to be as authentic as possible, and that meant casting young. And it’s just so much to ask of a teenager to not only be able to do the scenes as written, but to be able to improvise, as we did a lot of, and to have the voiceover cadence of someone like Sarah Koenig. And we just were extremely lucky that Tyler Alvarez came with all that. He was very much his character in that … Peter is fully committed to getting to the bottom of this crime and so is he. He would come in with his own written questions for each one of our interviews. We would let him do the first take with his round of questions.
Yacenda: We cast him based of a very good audition and he did some improvisation, but the way we shot it was, we would sit down with Tyler for hours at a time, just going through all the facts of the case, what he thinks Mrs. Shapiro knows; what he thinks Alex Trimboli saw; what he knows for sure; what he suspects — all of this. And he had this long notebook. So the first thing we ever shot … the very first shot of the whole show in production was just, “OK Tyler, you have 40 minutes to interview Jimmy” and he had no idea what the questions were gonna be.
And it was nice because we can write questions like a high schooler, but he’s a real teenager so there’s gonna be more pauses and there’s gonna be little imperfections to the way he does that interview that if it’s ever feeling too scripted, then we could come back to some of those raw takes that we would do with a lot of our main characters in the interviews.
Were the scripts fully written by the time you started shooting? Did the cast know where the story was going to end up?
Yacenda: All the scripts were written, but then we would also have little two-sheets for each of the characters. So we would give Alex Trimboli, “OK this is what actually happened with Sarah Pearson on the dock. This is what you said on the first day. This is why you said it. You honestly do believe you saw Dylan, but you’re not as sure about it as you’re leading on.” And we would give them that stuff so that they could do the interviews and kind of add supplementary content.
And then when we were doing the scene work, we wouldn’t tell the camera people the blocking, and we would do the improv take first. I think when you do an improv take second, they’re all jokes and everything and they can go off by a degree … but when you just go in like, “OK you know the basic two beats of the scene and however it happens, it happens” … we found a lot more imperfections in those scenes that we could cut into.
We’re supposed to spend the season questioning Dylan’s honesty and his character, but there’s a lot of nuance to Jimmy Tatro’s performance. How did you strike that balance of him being a totally recognizable teenage dirtbag, but also finding those moments of empathy that keep us guessing as to his guilt?
Perrault: We didn’t want the sympathy to come from “save the cat” moments.
Yacenda: We could very easily have been like, “oh his mom has cancer” and we could’ve done stuff to make it much easier to sympathize with them, but we wanted it to be a more sort of challenging exercise for them to deal with. There’s a kid who’s kind of a dick. He bullies some kids in the school. If he wasn’t faced with an injustice, you would not like the guy.
But I think as an audience, you kind of feel for a guy who, if you think he’s innocent and you think that the school is just doing it because he’s that type of guy, and he’s just kind of dumb and it’s easy to pin it on him … that elicits some real empathy when you wouldn’t typically empathize with that guy. That was always the goal. And I think Tatro just comes in and I think he loved the character and really tried to make it honest and make it his own and he wasn’t trying to be like “oh, deep down I have a heart of gold.”
SPOILER ALERT, FINAL EPISODE DETAILS BELOW.
It’s become a hallmark of the genre to leave the ending somewhat unresolved, since real life rarely gives us satisfying answers. Did you ever consider tying it up with more closure, or did you want to adhere to that trope?
Perrault: We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t too neat of an ending, and ultimately that this is Dylan’s story. This isn’t like a Law and Order episode where, whether you enjoyed or not, [it] hinged on how strong the “whodunit” factor is. We wanted to make sure that yeah, there is the central question of who drew the dicks, but ultimately this is Dylan’s story regardless of the answer to that question. And it is a staple of these true crime docs to not have a neat ending. So we didn’t want it to be too convenient, or else we felt that it wouldn’t ring true.
Yacenda: We didn’t want to betray the audience. We wanted them to know that we’d done the homework. Like at the end of the day, even though Peter is only 90% sure who did it, we know who did it, Dan and I. So we have all the facts to the case and everything. But I do like that we live in a world that … the conceit of this world is that it’s only as clear as our eyes, and as a documentarian, he can guess.
Is this a one and done story? Are you envisioning the show as more of an anthology format with a different crime for Season 2?
Perrault: We’d love to keep doing it. There’s definitely more tropes of the true crime genre to hit. And we’re lucky that this happened: Even since writing and shooting this show, more true-crime docs have popped up. Some people in certain articles have attributed certain things we did to recent documentaries like The Keepers — we didn’t even know about The Keepers by the time we were shooting this. But, not only that, but Amanda Knox … there’s been a handful of docs that have come out since we’ve conceived this idea that we’d love to take on in another season.
Yacenda: And also, all these docs have different tones and styles and everything, different conventions that we haven’t used in the first season. We drew a lot from Serial and Making a Murderer in this season, but there’s so much we could do from Thin Blue Line or The Jinx, these tropes. You can’t do every tone at once. You have to pick the tone and stick to it. I’m very happy with what we did with Season 1, but I’m very excited with all of the stuff that we could do, ’cause it’s just such a rich genre. There’s so much you could do by merging documentary and then fictional narrative.
Would Season 2 still be a high school setting? Would you be looking at more adult crimes?
Yacenda: I don’t what we’re allowed to talk about, but the core conceit is probably it would be another medium-stakes crime taken to really serious ends. I mean, we could go even further with it. I’m very excited for Season 2. We know what we want to do. We just don’t know what we’re allowed to talk about.
American Vandal Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.