The Cancellation Of American Vandal Was A True Crime

The comedy hook of “American Vandal” — what if there was a real docu-series about a really dumb crime, like a teenager spray-painting a bunch of dicks on cars? – really only has enough mileage for a five-minute parody trailer on YouTube. It would have felt stretched after just one episode, let alone an entire season. But the pot humor of “American Vandal” was just a Trojan horse; the series takes its stories and characters seriously in such a way that audiences can’t help but get involved as well. It’s no small feat to get viewers to truly engage with the mystery of which teacher ate a piece of chocolate-covered cat poop, and that’s why “American Vandal” is so awe-inspiring.

Many TV shows and movies have tried to blend in with modern technology, and what ends up on screen often ends up being either ridiculously inaccurate or a cautionary tale of how social media is going to kill us all. Another Netflix favorite, ‘Black Mirror’, has been derided for repeatedly returning to ‘tech = evil’, with a satirical piece by The Toast memorably summarizing the show as ‘what if phones but too many? “

By contrast, “American Vandal” offers razor-sharp precision in its depiction of technology as a crime-solving tool (in Season 1, high school detective Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund use memes to check for suggestive nuances texting “heyy” with two Ys; in Season 2, they weed out suspects by checking their social media posts for a particular issue that only happened on certain iPhone models). Many shows are written from the perspective of adults who grew up before the internet was really a thing, and view social media as shallow and silly, or downright bad. But “American Vandal” sees the beauty of the “fake” versions of themselves young people post online, observing that these digital self-portraits are actually a way of experimenting with identities in search of the one that’s right for them.

Ultimately, what makes “American Vandal” great is its intense compassion for the teenagers at the heart of its story. In his search for a culprit, he reveals that there are no single villains or heroes. Confident and popular kids have their share of deep-seated insecurities. The most beloved and respected teachers have secret pockets of bias and vindictiveness.

“American Vandal” critiques the way the true-crime documentary genre takes real people and casts them in the roles of villain or hero, protagonist or antagonist, dismissing their humanity as a drawback. When Peter and Sam do segments on each other to consider the possibility that one of them is the vandal, both end up deeply hurt by the cold eye of the documentary trained on them. A celebratory moment at the end of Season 1 is marred by a classmate who corners Peter and asks him why he felt it necessary to include private text messages revealing his hookup list in the documentary. It had almost nothing to do with the investigation; it was just private information turned into fodder for the content machine.

As Peter concludes in his closing monologue for Season 2 of “American Vandal”: “We’re not the worst generation, we’re just the most exposed.”

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