When spoofing a film or television series, one could create a shot-for-shot parody of the source material, or merely utilise its formula. The latter approach is the preferred option for many, but that brings with it a need to produce original, compelling material that is worthy of viewing in its own right.
Such an example is American Vandal, an eight-part comedy from Netflix and a satire of the streaming service’s own documentary series Making a Murderer. The subject of this mockumentary is Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a misfit, slacker and “known dick-drawer”. Dylan has recently been suspended by Hanover High School for defacing his teachers’ cars with spray-painted penises in a Jonah-style prank. Or at least, it is believed he did – most of the evidence is circumstantial, with no conclusive proof of Dylan’s actions.
Documenting these events are Dylan’s classmates, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Eckland (Griffin Gluck) who, through interviews with Hanover High’s students and teachers, hope to uncover the real perpetrator. Their joint investigation raises several theories as to who is responsible yet, just as the school has done, they are only able to speculate as to the identity of the vandal, or vandals. As the duo conduct their research, the school becomes increasingly hostile to their activities, with fractures growing in their friendship as a result.
Despite being an obvious work of fiction, American Vandal does everything it can to convince viewers they are watching a real documentary, and for the most part succeeds in doing so. It has a very professional look to it, with great editing, plenty of B-roll photography and a dramatic soundtrack to increase the tension. Smaller touches also add to this effect, like having the actors film certain scenes, and the opening credits listing the names of the characters – Peter is named as the director, while “Mr. Baxter” is credited as Executive Producer.
Aiding the perceived realism is a storyline which is both riveting and hilarious. Most of the humour derives from how seriously the characters treat the situation – whether he be talking about handjobs or ball hairs, Peter’s narration remains deadpan throughout, and his straight-faced sincerity when asking the most ludicrous questions is utterly delightful. Additionally, each episode has a conflict which, in one way or another, connects to main plot, and ends on a cliffhanger which leaves the viewer desperate to know what happens next.
Most astonishingly, there’s a humanity to American Vandal that is rarely found in parodies. Much of this is due to the terrific young cast that has been assembled – something of a habit with Netflix, what with Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why – and their seemingly genuine performances. The way in which the protagonists react to certain situations, as well as their behaviour and dialogue, is both understandable and plausible; as a consequence, the viewer is left feeling compassion, sympathy and even remorse for the characters.
With American Vandal, Netflix has created something truly special, a satirical documentary with both wit and heart. It’s a definitive example of how to do parody properly, with a story that is entertaining in its own right, and a great cast that makes the drama believable, making it yet another binge-worthy hit.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
All eight episodes of American Vandal were watched for this review. The series will be streaming on Netflix from September 15.