On September 15th, Netflix released American Vandal, an eight-part mockmentary chronicling two earnest high school sophomores' quest to prove their classmate innocent of a crime.
Rather than a murder, burn-out and “known dick-drawer” Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) has been accused of spray painting penises on all 27 cars parked in the teacher’s lot of Hanover High.
Netflix’s Making of a Murderer, like recent true crime juggernauts Serial and The Jinx, was not only a pop culture phenomena, it represents everything right and everything potentially dangerous about cold case journalism in the age of social media. It’s also ripe for parody.
So if this is a parody, you wonder, why on earth would true crime addicts want to watch?
I'm glad you asked because I happen to have some answers for you.
The creators love the genre they are satirizing.
American’s greatest parody artist, Weird Al Yankovic, has often cited the fact that he loves rather than hates the songs he is satirizing as a reason for his success. In fact, some of the greatest parodies of all time – from Airplane! to Galaxy Quest – are the creations of people who knew and loved the genres they spoofed.
It’s a safe bet that creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda have binged on a few true crime shows and maybe sort of hate themselves for loving them so much. American Vandal nails all the tropes of the true crime genre.
Perrault and Yacenda give us the well-intentioned amateur investigators & filmmakers, a shady but likable defendant, suspicious authority figures and possibly unreliable witnesses. They package all that up with a minimalist soundtrack, shaky camera work, and self-important, vaguely existential narration.
Then, the serialized “documentary” goes viral, an event that transforms the investigation itself. This includes the meta-hashtag, also used in Netflix’s marketing, #whodrewthedicks.
It’s more than just a long, hard penis joke
Yes, penis humor is an essential element of American Vandal. Hilariously so. However, in order to sustain itself over eight episodes, American Vandal has to be more than incessant dick jokes. Thankfully, creators develop a strong story and recognizable characters on which to hang their parody.
The central mystery – Who drew the dicks? – unfolds in a way that perfectly mimics addictive true crime shows. This includes character development, plot twists, damning new evidence and theories that prove too good to be true.
The show also contains moments that satirize the serious ethical issues that come along with the genre.
Documentarians Peter (Tyler Alverez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) face the consequences of revealing intimate details about their classmates and teachers, the dangers of becoming too confident in one’s own theories and pushback from angry authority figures.
There’s even a hint that two characters will be subjected to “real world shipping” as fans of the documentary find them “cute” together.
Dick jokes are funny
I once had an archeology professor tell me that the oldest written joke ever found was a dick joke. It turns out that the actual oldest is in fact a fart joke, but there is no doubt that dick jokes have a long and storied history.
Nevertheless, at the center of American Vandal is an elongated and extended dick joke that at times goes flaccid but ultimately hardens into something impressive.
Thankfully, American Vandal knows when to push its dick jokes and when to dial them back. Around the middle third, they kind of disappear before roaring back for the…climax.
The show works as a low-key teen soap
Several attempts to create “found footage” or “documentary” soap operas have failed, but American Vandal gives us just enough glimpses into interconnected teenage drama for the show to function as a serial drama.
The relationship between Dylan and his fallen good-girl girlfriend McKenzie (Camille Ramsey) becomes a central part of the mystery.
On top of that, protagonist and director Peter nearly wrecks his friendship with his best friend/filmmaking partner Sam by theorizing Sam may have drawn the dicks because of a crush on a classmate.
The filmmaker sleuths also follow leads that involve summer camp hookups, parental divorces, social justice campaigns, inappropriate behavior by teachers and senior pranks.
It helps that many of the main players are played by charismatic young actors, ready-made for social media. In particular, Jimmy Tatro’s performance as Dylan anchors the whole show to a dim-bulb who remains sympathetic despite his total inability to do or say anything that might help his case.
Could there be a Season 2? Let’s just say that like many of the shows it parodies, American Vandal leaves a few elements unsolved and a few plot threads unresolved.
That doesn't mean we don't expect to see similar parodies in the same vein as American Vandal because if it works, it works. And American Vandal works on every level.
Melissa Marshall is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.