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American Vandal’s Uncanny Portrait of Generation Z

The true crime mockumentary’s second season sharply depicts a world of intensive reputation management.

Scott Patrick Green / Netflix

In the second episode of American Vandal’s new season, a teenager named Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) gives a lyrical speech about the Mexican spiced milk drink, horchata. He is sitting in front of a black screen when he does this, the lead subject of a fictional documentary about a series of “poop crimes” committed at a private Catholic high school in the Pacific Northwest, and he is trying to exonerate himself.

You see, in the first episode of the series, Kevin McClain—an unabashed eccentric who wears a flatcap and formal vests with baggy khaki pants—confessed to the trio of crimes, which included spiking the cafeteria lemonade with maltitol powder so that over forty students spontaneously excavated their bowels, filling a pinata with excrement during a classroom party, and stuffing a set of t-shirt canons with dried cat dung. The anonymous prankster behind these fecal matters taunted the victims for weeks on social media, referring to him or herself on Instagram only as “The Turd Burglar.” No one at St. Bernardine’s knew who was terrorizing the school, or why, until one student stepped forward, telling authorities that he suspected his best friend, Kevin McClain of being the culprit. The reason? Horchata.

Apparently, Kevin McClain has a thing for beverages. He makes YouTube videos about rare teas from around the world. On the day of the lemonade attack, which students took to calling “The Brownout,” he knocked over an elderly priest’s lemonade in the cafeteria with his lunch tray, and replaced it not with a second lemonade, but with a horchata, which cost $1.25 more. In his interview, Kevin claims that he did this because “it is the superior beverage,” claiming with a put-on, pretentious affect that “it is shockingly smooth and sweet, and when mixed with organic whole milk as the Spaniards intended it, is divine.” Still, his friend argues, this makes him look suspicious, like he knew a gut bomb was coming, and he wanted to spare a frail old man from intestinal distress.

This all sounds very silly—Turd Burgling, poop crimes, an amateur investigation—but American Vandal is deadly serious about its silliness. The premise of the show is that two high school students, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), inspired by true crime documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer, decide to shoot their own investigative films. In the first season, they cover a scandal at their own school: Someone has spray-painted 27 penises on the faculty’s cars, while the teachers were in a meeting. In the second season, they decide to look outside their own community, and instead of trying to identify a single mischief-maker, Sam and Peter are trying to unravel a massive institutional conspiracy.

The humor in the first season not only came from its crude subject matter (you learn more than you ever wanted to know about how to elegantly draw a phallus), but from the fact that Sam and Peter approach their vérité work like they are the Maysles brothers. As they attempt to exonerate the leading suspect Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), they construct elaborate maps, they stage elaborate re-enactments, and they grill their interview subjects with a confrontational zeal that almost earns them a school expulsion. They are not solving a murder but they treat their material as if it is life or death, as if they are out to win a Pulitzer.

There is, of course, something puerile about this—the creators of American Vandal, Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, are essentially taking Christopher Guest’s mockumentary format and tossing in dirty jokes—but inside its shiny wrapper of inanity, the first season revealed a deeper truth. Even though Peter and Sam proved Dylan Maxwell innocent, their hard work was for naught. Dylan had already lost everything: his college acceptance, his girlfriend, the respect of his peers and of the country (in the meta-world of the show, Peter and Sam post their first installments on YouTube, sending Dylan’s story viral). So he decides to become the person that everyone assumes he is. He didn’t commit the first act of vandalism, but he picks up a can of red paint and angrily defaces a teacher’s driveway. Just as institutional biases can harm an individual, true crime series can distort and destroy the lives of their subjects.

When the second season of American Vandal begins, Sam and Peter have become national celebrities. In a truly next-level joke, they explain that Netflix picked up the first season of their show and has hired them to film a new installment. They follow up a tip from a student named Chloe Lyman, who believes that Kevin McClain is being framed for a crime he did not commit. She says she knows, in fact, who did it: the star of the basketball team, DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), who is being protected by the administration because he is such a cash cow for the sports program.

What the show does better than almost any other comedy on television is specificity. Its minute observations about how Generation Z lives, down to the smallest emoji or Instagram comment, are uncannily accurate. There’s the way Kevin McClain says “horrrr-chah-ta,” overemphasizing the Spanish pronunciation to sound worldly. There’s DeMarcus Tillman, the star of the basketball team excusing his poor attempts at writing poetry by pronouncing that “I feel like Shakespeare’s first poem was probably trash too.” There’s the overeager, try-hard teacher Miss Montgomery, who gets into debates with students about whether or not the pope is cool and compares herself to “Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.” There’s a disgruntled, expelled student Grayson Wentz, who makes angry vlogs about how his Internet-addicted classmates are all sheep who are desperate for double-taps.

For all its scatological humor—and there is a lot of that—the new season of American Vandal draws more profound conclusions than the first. Peter and Sam quickly find themselves in over their heads, in a dark cycle of blackmail, catfishing, revenge porn, and other webby terrors. This is a place where so many young people find themselves today; caught between appearances and reality, reputation and vulnerability. As more and more teenagers begin to lead their lives at least halfway online, they are opening themselves up for traumatic experiences. If the gimlet eye of American Vandal reveals one truth about the next generation, it is that the crap they will have to put up with is far worse than anything you could catch from lemonade.