When American Vandal exploded onto the scene in 2017, it was both a format we'd binged a million times before and also a singularly original television show in a vast sea of genre fare. A pitch perfect parody of America's true crime obsession, Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault's tightly scripted American Vandal presented itself as a docuseries that followed the journey of two friends and budding investigators as they try to crack the most fearsome crime to ever strike Hanover High School: Who drew the dicks?
What unfolded over those first episodes could have simply been a dick joke that lasted for 3 hours and 30 minutes too long, but instead was a modern masterpiece that Netflix viewers found themselves invested deeply in despite what can only be described as the lowest of stakes. Long story short, it felt like lightning in a bottle, eight episodes of TV that no one should ever attempt to replicate now that audiences were fully in on the joke. After all, a gag is never as funny the second time around. However, Season 2 rises above and beyond the challenge set before it. With a clever little meta twist — Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam's (Griffin Gluck) webseries went viral and caught the attention of a Netflix exec who greenlit a big budget version of the show — the series shifts into anthology mode, with an entirely new cast, an entirely new school, and an entirely new mystery to solve. And from the eight episodes that were screened for critics, the new mystery is a doozy: Peter and Sam, the only returning characters from Season 1, hunt down the identity of a serial poop prankster who calls themself The Turd Burglar.
On a surface level, it'll take a few episodes for fans to sink their teeth into the new roster of characters because the amount of literal shit overwhelms the first three episodes. For a less dedicated or enamored fan that might feel like a simple or cheap level up in intensity of pranks. Swap out a funny dick drawing; insert significantly more disgusting and wide spread waves of intense diarrhea and vomiting. But the deeper you wade into the season, the clearer it is that Yacenda, Perrault and company aren't just leveling up a gross and funny visual gag, but the consequences as well. The police and justice system get involved in a way that was missing in Season 1, and there's real criminal charges at stake considering the amount of bodily and emotional harm that's inflicted upon the students and teachers.
It's these increased stakes that make the second season of American Vandal so compelling. Without spoiling it for everyone, the last two episodes of the season are truly Emmy worthy. American Vandal brings together what at first feels like a disparate and far-flung group of high school acquaintances to make an enthusiastic plea for empathy from a generation that grew up Extremely Online. While the core of American Vandal is exposing truths and the uglier side of social power and how teens often wield that power cruelly, Season 2 presses the point that despite what our social media feeds look like, we're more alike than different. We all, especially as teenagers stumbling toward adulthood, fuck up, but often in the quest of things everyone wants: kindness, companionship, and agency.
But that doesn't mean that American Vandal falls into the trap of providing excuses for bad boy behavior — the perpetrator gets the comeuppance they deserve. The ending is so satisfying for the precise reason Americans are driven to binge true crime: it delivers a fair and just punishment, which is often not the case in one of the most salacious genres of TV.
The only off note in Season 2 is that while the writers do an excellent job of showing, not telling, they often double-back to tell you as well. That instinct comes through most heavily in the finale, but the sincerity and commitment of the cast — especially Melvin Gregg as DeMarcus Tillman — pull the series back from crossing the line into trite or corny. And frankly, even if the show had firmly stepped into that territory, they have a convenient excuse built in: We all know that big Hollywood budgets ruin the indie magic of the internet.
Thankfully the opposite is true of American Vandal Season 2. It spins sh-t into pure gold.
American Vandal premieres on Netflix Sept 14.