Tuesday, September 11, 2018

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'American Vandal' - Season 2

Netflix's American Vandal returns for its 8-episode second season on Friday, September 14. The comedy stars Tyler Alvarez, Griffin Gluck, Travis Tope, Melvin Gregg, Taylor Dearden and DeRon Horton.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening all eight episodes

Netflix's documentary spoof American Vandal came out of nowhere with its first season. It was announced without a whole lot of buzz. It starred a cast of virtual unknowns. And yet, it quickly blew up because of its central mystery and willingness to commit fully to the joke at the center of its premise. It easily could have been a dick joke delivery machine in the first season. And yes, it was that. But it was so much more as well. It had the ability to balance the completely absurd with genuine pathos as a pair of high school students were investigating who drew 27 dicks on 27 cars. It was so extremely silly but found a hidden depth that explored what it means to be a high school student at this precise moment in time. It was a better high school drama than many of the shows currently set in that genre. It lured everyone in with such an extreme premise but kept the audience hooked through the sheer entertainment of seeing Dylan Maxwell vindicated. And now, the show returns for its second season on Friday. The success of the first year was always going to be daunting for the creative team to try to maintain. There are some shows that are designed to only run for one season. Those that try to keep that success going can fall victim to repeating the same patterns or trying to get bigger and broader to less acclaim. The new season still features Peter and Sam investigating a silly crime. But it also increases the stakes and makes it clear right away that things aren't as silly as they once were. The stakes are more real and the tension is incredibly high. But that also ensures that the final payoff is just as satisfying to watch.

The second season takes Peter and Sam out of Hanover High and into the elite world of St. Bernardine's Catholic high school in Washington state. The premiere establishes how their lives have changed since the release of the first season. In fact, there is even some meta commentary about how they were acquired by Netflix which gave them access to production values that simply wouldn't be possible for a high school production. That explains the 3D renderings and the drone shots of their school. That aspect continues in the second season with many dramatic reenactments of the crimes and their respective fallouts that occur this time around. Peter and Sam chose to be very selective with what their next documentary project would be. They select a story out of St. Bernardine's where a vandal calling himself the Turd Burglar has attacked. The event in question involves a tainted lunch that forces dozens of the students to promptly poop themselves. It's the most disgusting visual that the show has ever produced. A lot of it has already been teased by the trailer. But it's still so agonizing and horrifying to watch as the students fight over bathroom stalls and eventually have to find comfort in sinks, urinals, lockers, backpacks and just a random piece of floor. It's a vicious attack that proves that the show is going for something much broader and more extreme this season. This is more than just a simple case of vandalism. All of this could be seen as deliberate poisoning in order to get some revenge against the students of St. Bernardine's. As such, Peter and Sam feel a duty to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Now, this setup means that Peter and Sam don't have any prior connection to the students or this environment. They are put up in a fancy house by the family who contacted them to investigate further. They don't believe the local police got this case right. A suspect has been arrested and formally charged with a felony. Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) is an outsider at the school who the police quickly zeroed in on being subjected to years of torment by his classmates both at school and online. The premiere actually paints a pretty open and shut case about how Kevin did this and why. As the first season revealed with Dylan though, the case is much more complex than it initially seems. There is so much about this world that Peter and Sam just don't know about. That means they are treated more as the anonymous observers to this world. Yes, there are moments where they are bouncing their own theories off of one another. In fact, those are some of the most amusing moments of the new season. At one point in time, Sam tries to show the differing faces when it comes to clenching one's butt versus trying to push something out. Meanwhile, they argue about the social media postings of the Turd Burglar and whether they sound like the suspects they are interviewing about the case. It's all so delightful. Because they don't have any personal attachment to the past or future of this story, it also means that Peter and Sam really don't have some grand story arc this season. They are not a part of the story even though their actions lead to more people being accused and bullied at this school.

Whereas the first season was able to perfectly balance the conflicting tones of silly comedy with poignant tragedy, the second opts for more of the latter. There is still a fair amount of humor. Poop jokes are still just as funny and plentiful as dick jokes. But the wealth is shared this season to ensure that more characters are caught up in the main story as they reflect on what the actions of the Turd Burglar could mean for their lives. Tope does such a fantastic job in creating a very specific personality for Kevin. He's a guy who has essentially built an armor for himself to the point where he doesn't see his classmates as bullying him. He has created a personality that allows him to be happy and distinct in the world. Meanwhile, star basketball player DeMarcus (Melvin Gregg) also gets caught up in this story and finds himself constantly protected by a system that loves and adores him so much. In fact, the show truly plunges into the depths of how someone raised with so much love and protection can actually alter their perception about what is acceptable behavior and what's not. DeMarcus isn't naive throughout this story. He has crowds of adoring fans. As such, people are always looking to exploit him for something. But that is lonely and isolating in its own right. Him being able to articulate that also informs so much of the story as it seems like the entire system is trying to prevent the documentary from getting to the truth about the Turd Burglar despite the extreme of the crime involved.

Plus, the success of the first season has allowed the show to be a bit more notable and recognizable with its characters. This could either work for or against the show though. Part of its initial charm was seeing unknowns in the roles and being able to believe them as a group of high school students where this unexpected vandalism happens to them. And now, it's a little more clear that it's a television show that is moving forward by investigating this mystery. As such, it's notable when L.A. Law alum Susan Ruttan pops up as Kevin's grandmother or Dear White People star DeRon Horton plays DeMarcus' teammate and best friend. Sweet/Vicious alum (and daughter of Bryan Cranston) Taylor Dearden is also a significant part of the season as Chloe even though the show also struggles to give her as much to do as DeMarcus and Kevin. Recognizability could derail the facade that this is a documentary that delves into social media in the hopes of unmasking the realities of a group of high school students. And yet, the show continues to use social media better than any other show out there. In fact, it's a huge clue when the recent glitch from the iPhone update becomes a major component of the investigation. That's the type of clue that could prove someone's innocence. Or not. As the season plays out, it's important that the show keeps the audience guessing until the very last minute to see just how guilty or innocent these new students actually are. It's once again a very thrilling and surprising ride.