They are examining each other’s images. One collection of photographs depicts the 27 penises that were spray-painted on 27 automobiles in the faculty parking lot of their high school (the crime that is the focus of their documentary). The second group of pictures depicts instances of the penises that the main suspect Dylan (Jimmy Tatro, who turns mouth-breathing into an art form) is notorious for drawing every morning on the whiteboard in the classroom of a despised teacher.
There is much discussion about the stylistic and, um, anatomical differences between the car-graffiti penises and the school-whiteboard penises. This discussion is assisted by a litany of narrative techniques that we’ve seen in true crime documentaries like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, such as slow pans and zooms, animation, and the sparse and ominous plunking of low notes on some unseen Piano of Doom. It has been suggested by Peter and Sam that the variances may indicate that Dylan is not the offender in this case.
I found that I was thinking things like, “Okay, well that’s hardly exculpatory,” “they’re rendered in different media, on a different scale, and anyway it’s been established that the spray-painter hit all the cars in only a few minutes, which means that each penis was rushed, and that could easily account for such,” and so on.
The show recounts the investigation of an incident of phallus-themed vandalism from episode to episode, and the whole comedy of the show is, of course, how deadpan, gravid, and meticulously accurate it remains throughout the entirety of the inquiry. The mistake is that all of the effort, all of the serious attention, and all of the technical resources that we are accustomed to seeing employed to investigate a horrible act of violence have instead been given to something that is so insignificant, so stupid, and so juvenile. This is the goof.
And it took me mere minutes — minutes! — to completely forget all of that, become entirely involved, and stay up until three in the morning to finish watching all eight episodes. I was desperate to find out the answer to the show’s central mystery, which, if there’s any damn justice in the world, will join the ranks of such zeitgeist-defining questions as “Who Shot J.R.?,” “Where’s the Beef?,” and “Who Put the Bop in the Bop Shoo Bop?” namely: “Who Put the Bop in the Bop Shoo Bop?”
The following day, after I had binged myself on the show, I taped an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour in which I suggested it to listeners. I mentioned that it was a lot less general than its concept — and its trailer — would suggest it would be. I talked about how devoted it was to the familiar trappings of serialised long-form true crime narratives, and how that devotion, along with the relative absence of clearly defined “gags” in the vein of This Is Spinal Tap, meant that it didn’t feel at all like what we’ve come to call a mockumentary. I also talked about how it was devoted to the familiar trappings of serialised long-form true crime narratives.
Since then, I’ve heard from other folks who were curious about what it was that I was smoking and asked me about it. How could I have missed how ridiculously funny it is? How fantastically funny? In what degree does it satirise?
I respond to them by saying that it does not come across as satire to me. The brutal, lacerating, elbow-in-the-ribs sensitivity that defines the satiric drive is not present in this work, nor does it possess it. Its humour is neither sarcastic, dry, or brittle in any way. And rather than merely making fun of shows like “Making a Murder,” as some may assume, it elevates and celebrates them as works of art.
Consider the scene from episode 2 in which a suspected tryst on the docks is reenacted as if it were an episode of CSI: Camp Miniwanka: The lines of sight! Statements from witnesses! A CGI tiny wanka!
Or the scene in episode 5 that painstakingly tracks the path of a can of red spray paint through a high school party by using pictures taken with camera phones and feeds from social media.
The absurdity of the situation made me want to laugh out loud. Probably ought to have done so. Instead, I shifted my position so that I was facing the television and frowned as I tried to put together what had happened, balancing different possibilities and assessing potential culprits.
The creators of American Vandal are well aware of this fact, as well as the extent to which viewers have internalised the manner in which true crime shows are presented. The techniques that they use with such reverence and restraint have become the way that we do True Crime now: a messy life-event is given a narrative structure that is imposed over it, and this structure begins doling out the revelations slowly, steering us down dead-ends, and doubling back to review, and re-review, and re-re-review, some piece of evidence whose inviolate truth we’ve taken for granted. This style of storytelling has an effect on us because it follows a consistent and unwavering beat.
So? It doesn’t matter if that infrastructure is constructed on a horrific murder or a vandalised Prius.
None of it would work if we didn’t care about the underlying mystery, yet the high school environment is methodically crafted. The students and instructors in Errol Morris’ 10 Things I Hate About You are familiar, genuine, and real.
Performances are key. Playing “actual people” is one of the toughest acting tasks there is. To operate, it must vibrate at a different frequency than planned labour; it must be purged of artificiality. Non-actors are untidy when filmed. Their self-consciousness affects their posture and speech. In American Vandal, performers who’ve been trained to avoid self-consciousness must reintroduce it.
We care about high schoolers. We worry about their secrets and tensions. Particularly Dylan’s.
I didn’t laugh much during American Vandal’s premiere. I was affected by the final scene’s sneaky poignancy.