Sunday 12 November 2023

TV review: American Vandal, Netflix (2018)

Normally when a show of movie wants to claim to be special but has nothing special about it the filmmakers add “American” to the title. It’s a label that means everything and nothing, or that hints at something weird but extraordinary to come. In the case of “American Vandal’ you get the feeling that the makers wanted to point to how quirky the show is (it is quirky) while claiming themselves to be innovative and outstanding (they are).

Having said that I want to note that this show moves slowly. It started as a school project and went to a second season on the back of the success of the first. What the first season entails is an investigation into who was responsible for painting penises on cars in the staff parking lot of a school in California. While this would seem funny the fact is that school authorities zero in on one suspect and he’s taken to court for vandalism.

It's a relatively serious matter in a first-world way, but what the filmmakers Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault do is press the Pause button and fast forward frame by frame so that they can work out exactly who did it. To do this they interview dozens of people including students and staff. They get leads and clues and then try to work out one by one if it is credible. They get testimony from person A but then interview persons B and C in order to decipher whether person A is a reliable witness. Who is telling the truth?

The show is an excellent primer on youth in America, which would justify the moniker at first blush. But it’s also about the nature of truth itself in an age when electronic devices seem to give us unlimited access to other people’s lives.

The second season goes to Seattle where a person put laxatives in a drink dispenser with predictable results. Again, Yacenda and Perrault get busy with their camera interviewing dozens of people in order to work out who did the deed. This sort of reality television is sometimes cringeworthy but the payoff is precisely in the excessive attention to detail, the fine-tooth combing through evidence in order to find the truth, the blurring of boundaries between heresay and actuality that can characterise a schoolyard. A big thumbs up from me.

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