There is a massive twist that has blown the minds of Netflix viewers who have binged its new true-crime docuseries American Vandal over the last few weeks. The realization comes at different points for different viewers: The story isn’t real.
No, this eight episode series about a high-school senior wrongly accused of vandalizing 27 cars with graffiti drawings of penises is not based on real events. It is a satire—evidently one that is spectacularly executed—of true-crime series like Making a Murderer and The Keepers that have become blockbuster phenomena for Netflix in their own rights.
The comedy series (once you catch on to the satire, it’s uproarious) so accurately nails the tone and editing style of those series that viewers hit play assuming they’re watching another blunt examination of the justice system, despite the lunacy of its central character: a high schooler with a gift for phallic art. The brains behind the (graffitied) balls are Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, who honed their knack for documentary parody with a 2013 spoof of ESPN’s 30 for 30 that centered on the central game in the film Space Jam.
What’s even more remarkable about American Vandal’s run is how closely, even down to the speed at which people have discovered and spread the word about it, its popularity and praise has tracked with the streaming service’s other true-crime docuseries.
Much like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, there has been a slow-burn rise in buzz surrounding the series, which debuted on Sept. 15—at least, slower than the fast-and-bright excitement and conversation that surrounds Netflix’s scripted series like House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black, which ignite the zeitgeist the weekend of release only to fizzle out immediately.
The interest isn’t front loaded. More and more people are beginning to learn about Dylan Maxwell and the 27 penises.
Who drew the 27 dicks on the 27 cars in a faculty parking lot?
That’s the question raised with the same severe earnestness as “Who killed Sister Cathy?” and “Is Steven Avery innocent?” The storytelling is familiar. There’s a suspect, whom the filmmaker shows ethically questionable favor for in an attempt to find “the truth,” which essentially means exoneration. In this case it’s stoner troublemaker Dylan Maxwell, played by Jimmy Tatro, who, because of his hobby of making Jackass-like stunt videos and especially because of his habit of drawing penises on dry erase boards around his school, is instantly flagged as the culprit and suspended. Only he says didn’t do it.
There are scenery establishing drone shots, straight-to-camera confessional interviews acting as a Greek chorus, red herrings, moody music, and digital renderings—in this case dramatizing a lakeside hand job.
That latter bit is the key here. This is a show set at a Southern California high school, and centered around a mystery that hinges on the mechanics of a drawing a dick: Does it have ball hair? Is it more instinctual to start on the shaft or the balls? Would someone take the time to draw a mushroom head, or just a rounded tip? It’s ridiculous. And a hoot.
It is crass and juvenile, almost cavalierly so, and that’s what makes it so believable—and maybe exactly why it fooled so many people into thinking it’s real. Sure, few series nail this convincing a genre satire. But few series also so accurately portray the habits, mindsets, vernacular, technology use, and mood of American teenagers literally at this moment. Who would’ve thought that the key to unlocking that would be a bunch of dicks? Actually, maybe we all should have.
Unlike many other true crime series, the youthfulness of its main players actually dictates that the storytelling explore newer mediums than we’re used to seeing, lending it a trailblazing excitement with possible impact on the documentary industry, though it’s fictional.
American Vandal is a satire, but it reveals the potential of the genre going forward, and the ways in which it’s possible to use social media, apps, and iPhone camera tools and tricks to tell stories in a documentary format—evolving filmmaking techniques as the technology we use to capture our everyday lives popularizes and develops in real time.
There’s an entire episode in which the student filmmakers, Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), piece together where an entire grade’s worth of students were and what they were talking about at a weekend house party—hilariously referred to as “Nana’s Party” because it was held at one girl’s grandmother’s house—using Snapchat videos and stories posted throughout the night from different locations with different perspectives.
A major clue to the case is revealed through a streaming app called Twitch, which we had honestly not even heard of before. More, the show digs into the phenomenon of going viral, adding a meta layer to the storytelling.
Peter and Sam post their episodes on YouTube as they finish them, which means that each successive installment finds the school and the players we’re watching not only more aware of the documentary but also of each new development in their investigation—and the possible guilt or innocence of Dylan Maxwell.
That leads to the humorous nod to social media movements that sprout up when pop culture becomes a phenomenon, but it’s all undercut by the comedy conceit that this is a mystery surrounding spray-painted penises: The hashtag #WhoDrewTheDicks starts trending, and a group of skeptics called Dick Deniers, who think the photos of the vandalism were photoshopped by the administration, forms.
And yet again in a pitch-perfect nod to the genre, the investigation in the documentary doesn’t unfold simply for the mystery lover’s sake. There’s moralizing and observations about society broadly told through the details of the story and the characters we meet. At some point, American Vandal evolves into an examination of the pursuit of salaciousness that can drive a filmmaker, storyteller, or journalist—especially as they gain fame for their work (Peter and Sam morph from school nerds to popular heroes)—and that human collateral damage left in its wake, with reputations destroyed and characters needlessly exposed and assassinated.
That’s all fine and good, but it’s also important to remember that this is a show about 27 dicks; it’s incredibly funny. It’s no easy task for the young actors to make these high schoolers seem down to earth while earnestly existing against the backdrop of the lunacy of that conceit, and they’re across-the-board gifted.
There’s a maddening ending to the season—yet another way in which the series is an homage to Netflix’s other hit crime documentaries—though it sets up the possibility for a Season 2, and thus the intriguing possibility of spending more time with the best new characters on TV, and their 27 penises.