Only modern television’s low bar of entry could birth American Vandal, which dubs its season-season criminal “the turd burglar” and the preeminent crime “the brownout.” Those phrases alone might make you want to bail, but just know you’re missing out, because not only is American Vandal funny in just the crassest way, it’s also legitimately smart and, somehow, strikingly emotional. This one’s a lot more than poop jokes.
American Vandal is a mockumentary in the style of The Jinx or Making A Murderer, but instead of a murder case, these filmmakers are searching for the truth behind a crass act of high-school prankery. The “true crime” tale of season one dealt with, um, some drawings of the male anatomy while this year’s act of villainy is, shall we say, much more fecal. These are crude premises, but Vandal brings unexpected savvy to its sophomoric foundation. This season, the bathroom humor is back in full force, but Vandal is packing more than a buttload of jokes this time. It’s bringing some heart, too. Squeeze your buns: This might be one of the best seasons of comedy of 2018.
Now here’s the thing: As great as American Vandal is, it’s also incredibly disgusting. You are going to see a lot of poop if you watch this show. The potty humor is very literal, and while the frankness of the show’s delivery is hilarious in effect, this new season is not for those with a weak stomach. The crime here involves a laxative issued to an entire school cafeteria at once, and let’s just say there aren’t nearly enough bathroom stalls to support this much demand. It’s not pretty.
American Vandal’s abject comedic presentation (it’s funny because, as one character puts it, “poop is funny”) extends to its characters, and that’s to say that this show illustrates the fictional high-school as more true-to-life than other teen shows. You see everything (everything), warts (plus non-warts) and all. As a faux-documentary, Vandal has a Staircase-esque style, but also an intentional lack of glamour, especially in regards to its students. These kids all seem real, and that serves to not only make the jokes way funnier, it makes you care about them much, much more.
Like other teenager fare we’ve talked about, like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and 13 Reasons Why, American Vandal traffics in stereotypes, both in its true-crime mockery and high-school theatrics. Yet the show justifies this familiarity by opening the door for the students to comment on these tropes within their interviews. There’s the creepy, overzealous religious kid (by the way, season two takes fine advantage of being set at a catholic school—there are some awesome retreat jokes) and the all-state jock and the kid who ran into some bad social luck as a freshman and never recovered. Everyone you know from high school is here, and in this light, it reminds you the stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason: High school just works like this sometimes.
And that’s ultimately the biggest surprise of American Vandal: It’s as interested in “how high school works” as it is in toilet jokes. As the new season develops, the comedy becomes less about the nasty stuff and more about how ridiculous it is to exist as a teenager in 2018. The laughs become tinged with a strange sort of existentialism as the object of the joke becomes less “haha, poop” and more “haha, the constant pressure brought on by performing our lives online creates a razor-thin edge upon which we can be manipulated if our facades threaten to collapse, LOL.” And yes, you will laugh despite yourself in these moments, because American Vandal has a masterful sense of balance and tone, but be ready for some ideas this time around. This show is funny, and sad, because it’s true.
American Vandal’s turn toward high-mindedness merges two extremes of adolescent television. It’s gross and lowbrow and hilarious, but reflective and sensitive and sympathetic, too. It thinks high school kids are total losers but it also cares about them so, so much. It’s easy to align with that, and that makes this experience of watching kids be absolutely mortified feel totally guilt-free. On any other show this would be cringe humor, second-hand embarrassment. Here, it’s terrific fun, and a gateway to minor profundities to boot.
There’s a version of American Vandal that runs right through you, but the show we’re given instead has a fortifying amount of fiber. This one sticks to your ribs even as your ribs are aching are laughing. It’s digestible and nutritious, and the release sure is satisfying. No need to hold it any longer: A show about poop is one of the best of the year.