In 2017, Netflix’s true crime mockumentary American Vandal took an otherwise one-note dick joke and turned it into an often brilliant season of television. It played off the wild excitement that typically follows true crime documentaries such as the stories covered in phenomenons like Serial or Netflix’s own Making a Murderer. The series’ absurdist take on the self-seriousness of these programs and the attention they garner turned it into one of the streaming service’s most unlikely hits, one that also made the question “Who drew the dicks?” into a nimble riff on TV shows like The Killing, with its “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” marketing campaign.
Unlike that show, American Vandal satisfied its audience’s thirst for answers, while also offering up a season of television that aimed to be about more than its central mystery. American Vandal season 1 wasn’t just a true-crime spoof, it was also a blisteringly funny observation of high school and its internal politics and social hierarchies. Season 2, then, is tasked with not only matching — or outdoing — the first season’s unlikely success, but also creating a central question that’s as hilariously inane as “Who drew the dicks?” The answer, apparently, is: "Who is the Turd Burglar?”
This fecal-focused inquiry takes the series to a similarly puerile place; it’s silly and gross and just the sort of premise that is right at home on a show that makes a digital animation of a sex act without batting an eye. But, as is usually the case with sequels, there’s a need to take things up a notch. In doing so, American Vandal opens up with a disgusting laxative attack on the students of Saint Bernadine, posh Catholic private school in Washington State. The attack, like other unfathomable events, is mostly captured on video and then disseminated through social media, in particular a single Instagram account belonging to the soon-to-be infamous Turd Burglar. This not only becomes a source of extreme embarrassment for the students hit by the laxatives, but it also makes the attack newsworthy enough that season 1 documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) take their now-Netflix-backed production up to Washington as their senior project. The hope is that they will not only exonerate another student possibly falsely accused of a triple crime (yes, there were multiple poop-filled incidents), but also get to the bottom of who the Turd Burglar really is.
Despite a new crime, setting, and almost entirely new cast, American Vandal season 2 is first interested in recreating the absurdist tone of the first season without appearing to be redundant. It’s a careful balancing act that’s filled with case boards, red herrings, damning interviews, and talking head testimony describing in exacting detail the crimes Peter and Sam are working so diligently to solve. As evidenced by season 1, it’s a balancing act that the show is more than capable of pulling off, and as disgustingly absurd as the premise is and as brilliantly circuitous as the investigation winds up being, perhaps the weirdest part of season 2 is when American Vandal acknowledges its own success and explains away one of its biggest nitpicks with a not-so-casual nod to Netflix picking the series up and granting a pair of high schoolers access to some ludicrously high production values.
While the nod to American Vandal’s benefactor is smart in its own a way, it undoes one of the first season’s cleverest jokes and ensures the show’s insanely hight production values are no longer incongruously funny. While abandoning that element alters the show’s perception, it’s in keeping with what is a surprisingly dark season, one that itself feels like a spoof on the trope of darker, more intense, and ambitious sequels being the norm, especially when its predecessor had come out of nowhere to become a hit.
The move ultimately works in American Vandal’s favor, especially as the season takes the question of “Who is the Turd Burglar?” to some surprising places that involve privacy violations, phone hacking, blackmail, catfishing, and public shaming. And it does so while also finding time for “just the tip day” and “dingleberry of information” jokes. Though the series takes largely successful stabs at delivering insightful observations on teen life in the age of social media, American Vandal’s true power is perhaps its willingness to follow up a tearful and by all accounts heartfelt confession with a dramatic re-enactment depicting a preposterously large supply of prophylactics being solemnly dropped on a motel room floor.
In that sense, American Vandal never forgets what kind of show it really is, and despite this second season aspirations of going darker and perhaps exploring more serious territory about social media's "digital walls" and the constant scrutiny under which young people are growing up, the show knows when to deliver that message seriously and when to absolutely ignore that impulse.
American Vandal season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.