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‘American Vandal’ season 2 is a goofy yet smart take on high school

| Thursday, September 20, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

“It wasn’t clear it was poop until somebody shouted, ‘It’s poop!’” one kid, dressed in classic Catholic school attire, says. “Then it was pretty clear.”

“American Vandal” is a difficult show to describe. Its first season was a weird piece of pitch-perfect parody married to a surprisingly incisive grasp of teenage minutiae. The first season’s tale of class clown Dylan Maxwell and false accusations made against him provided at first a charmingly straight-faced goof on true crime. But as the story progressed, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda delved into the complex emotional state of its adolescent characters with care and depth. It felt like a cross between “Freaks and Geeks” and “Making a Murderer,” told with the parody-minded genius of The Onion, a lightening-in-a-bottle concept that shockingly cohered at all.

Yet, somehow, they’ve done it again. This Peabody-winning series (seriously) doubles down on its darker elements to bring the Turd Burglar to life: a criminal terrorizing St. Bernadine’s, a private Catholic school famous for its prestigious basketball program, with fecal-based fear. The first season’s student documentarians, Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), return with higher production values and a location far from home. A new cast of suspects emerge from the privileged environment, as the narrative twists and turns with every clue and revelation.

The genius of “American Vandal” lies in its central comedic conceit: contrasting the mundane minutiae of high school with the high-stakes investigation conducted by Peter and Sam. But, unlike the first season’s victimless vandalism, the Turd Burglar wages full-on warfare: poisoning lemonade with laxatives, shoving poop in piñatas, dusting crowds with cat droppings. This naturally makes the series darker and more serious, and the decreased humor is felt. But “American Vandal” never skimps on detailing its bizarre world. Teachers throw birthday parties for Kurt Vonnegut, bands play EDM while wearing horse masks and a hot janitor becomes a school-wide obsession. “American Vandal” excels in presenting a recognizable yet slightly distorted world three steps from our own, remaining less absurd than NBC’s “Trial and Error” and The Onion’s podcast “A Very Fatal Murder,” both fellow true-crime parodies.

And what drives “American Vandal” is its perfect characterizations. All its suspects are types: fundamentalist Christian, social climber, star athlete, theater kid. Yet Perrault and Yacenda take care to provide shades and nuance to its major characters. In the first season’s Dylan Maxwell, they unsurfaced the tragic, wounded heart of a class clown. Here, they uncover the deep-seated loneliness and desperation of weirdo Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), one of the most fully realized characters I have ever seen. The prime suspect, Kevin is the archetypal weirdo and avid connoisseur of teas who is nicknamed “Fruit Ninja” because he karate chops at fruit. He speaks in a vaguely affected air to appear more intelligent yet constantly misuses common sayings (“And I was their proverbial…guy”). Yet beneath the facade is an adolescent longing for genuine connection.

This longing connects Kevin to the other standout: DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg). DeMarcus is all the entitlement and teenage arrogance of high school athletic stars dumped into a blender and poured into a rarely self-aware yet charismatic frame (“I look down on people with love,” he says sincerely). Because DeMarcus hails from humble origins, he code-switches at school to sound “more white.” Gregg is a hypnotic presence, drawing audiences into his orbit despite — or maybe because — of his character’s existence as a punchline in early episodes.

Yet, Gregg and Tope give such impressive performances that they threaten to swallow the season whole. Scenes without them lack compelling focus points, leaning on small detours too often. While the propulsive plotting remains a strength, the mystery feints in the direction of indicting institutional corruption but ends on a more pat conclusion. Whereas the first season ended on an ambiguous closer, the second season places a nice bow on its mystery and themes. Maybe some of my disappointments have to do with how unexpected and surprising the first season was. No second season could replicate that inexplicable sense of discovery. I watched plenty of better shows last year, but “American Vandal” proved to be the most enduring.

“American Vandal” has convinced me that true crime might be the perfect genre to tackle the teenage psyche. Obsessing over texts, Instagram posts and who said what to whom are, for better or worse, central components of high school social circles now. “American Vandal,” more than any other show I have seen, understands this in its bones, and it humanizes its subject with empathy and care. In a season all about constructed identities, “American Vandal” constructed a compelling case for its position as a vital text of modern-age adolescence. And they did it with poop.

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