First, there's the crime. Then a snapshot of the victim. Next, a short bit about the alleged perpetrator. And then, inevitably, the meat of the matter – the evidence against the suspect. Finally, there's the carefully accumulated new evidence – found by the filmmaker – that might exonerate the suspect.
Sometimes the pattern works in reverse. First, the suspect is presented but nobody has nailed him or her as the criminal, and then the evidence mounts at a painstaking pace and a case is presented that the dubious dude – usually it's a dude – has gotten away with something.
Such true crime investigations have thrived in recent years. The freedom and time that are offered by cable TV and Netflix have meant a cornucopia of long-form investigations. Netflix's Making a Murderer and HBO's The Jinx have helped to create an orthodox format for the genre. And it is ripe to be satirized.
American Vandal (streaming on Netflix) is just that – a seemingly juvenile but sharp mockery of the format. It's also about juvenile crime. There's this kid, see, who was nailed for spray-painting penises on cars in the school parking lot. Did he do it? Well, the teachers think the evidence is incontrovertible. And then there are some of his friends who believe, with some authority, that he's just too dumb to carry out the prank.
The series amounts to an often hilarious mockumentary. Our hero-filmmaker is tech geek, high-school sophomore and aspiring documentary filmmaker Peter (Tyler Alvarez). He's doing his usual high-school TV news reports about what is popular in the cafeteria and such when, into his lap falls a great subject. It's the worst crime in the history of Hanover High. At some point in the afternoon on a personal development day when the teachers were at the school holding meetings – but there were no students – somebody spray-painted 27 cars with crudely drawn penises.
Of course, we meet teachers who speak in plaintive terms about the pain and embarrassment of having to drive home or to the mall with that thing painted on the car. They're upset and some are angry.
Soon enough, school authorities decide that there's really only one possible vandal. That's Dylan (Jimmy Tatro), who is quickly expelled after what is, in the eyes of the filmmaker, a seriously flawed hearing. There are stern consequences for Dylan, since vandalizing the cars resulted in more than $100,000 in damages. This puts him in a pickle. He delivers for a local store and earns $10 an hour. Doing the math in his head, Dylan figures it's going to take a year of work to earn that kind of money.
Dylan is a bad-ass in the way some teenage boys are insufferable – he likes pranks, toilet humour and, yes, he's been known to draw a penis on the blackboard at school. He calls everybody "bro" or "dude" and has his own posse of hopeless bros who mostly sit on his mom's couch eating Cheetos or sticking said snack food up their noses. He has a girlfriend, Mackenzie (Camille Ramsey), a gum-chewing mall rat who is devoted to Dylan because he drives her around in his car.
Dylan's nemesis is Alex Tremboli (Calum Worthy), who totally swears he saw Dylan do the deed. He saw him. Right there. Alex is all sincerity and seems like a solid guy. But can he be trusted when Dylan's bros swear he was using the bathroom at a nearby antique store – don't even ask – when the crime was committed? The first break in the case arises from a close analysis of the phallic images sprayed on the cars. Something is amiss! Yes, you need a tolerance for the word "dick" to savour American Vandal. But the show is deft satire, not aimed only at the true crime genre, but at high-school drama as seen on TV and in movies. It is, after all, allegedly the work of a high-school kid who is chronicling a crime and, maybe, a miscarriage of justice at his own school.
There is a lot of dumb humour in the series but it is far from brainless. It mocks in order to highlight how viewers are manipulated by seemingly benign techniques. Further, it makes a relevant point about the way social media influences how teenagers perceive truth. The sequence in the series when Peter's documentary about Dylan and the crime – what you are supposedly watching – goes viral is a smart take on where truth goes missing in social-media phenomena.