“Who drew the dicks?” That memorable phrase from season one of American Vandal highlighted the juxtaposition between the mockumentary series’s hilarious central mystery—the culprit behind the spray-painting of penises on cars in a high school parking lot—and its grim, straight-faced tone. In its second season, the Netflix series swaps out dick jokes for poop jokes, trafficking in scatological humor that varies between hilariously extreme and extremely grotesque. As the season wears on, its plot veers unexpectedly into a dark but resonant portrayal of the perils of social media.
Season two begins in self-referential fashion, explaining that fictional high school filmmakers Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) were offered a contract by Netflix to produce another documentary after their first, which comprised American Vandal’s first season, went viral. The joke here, of course, is that Netflix will capitalize on any potential success, even if it means throwing money at teens who direct documentaries about phallic graffiti. Peter and Sam’s new investigation focuses on the Catholic school St. Bernardine, and an eccentric, unpopular student named Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) who recently confessed to a series of pranks.
The show’s gripping storytelling method is predicated on incessant red herrings and false positives such as Kevin’s dubious admission of guilt. Season two, composed of eight breezy half-hour installments, manages a shock with each new revelation or investigative coup, and testifies to the power of the documentary format to which American Vandal doggedly adheres. The series hews so closely to the aesthetic of true-crime series like The Jinx that it feels less like parody and more like the real thing.
The Turd Burglar is accused of pranks far more extreme than last season’s culprit, and each one, as the perpetrator’s moniker suggests, includes the use of feces. First the prankster poisons the lemonade in the high school cafeteria with laxatives—an act that lacks the simplistic elegance, and relative harmlessness, of drawing graffiti on a bunch of cars. The subsequent pranks are no less outrageous but are savage enough to blur the line between funny and dangerous, and as they grow darker, revealing intricate planning by an addled mind, the series struggles to maintain its characteristic irreverence.
American Vandal is filled with thoroughly sketched, instantly recognizable high-school types, but Kevin is a logjam of too many idiosyncrasies, and the series offers only the most cursory explanations for his quirks. He speaks in an overly mannered fashion, evoking a stately British demeanor. He misuses SAT words and is obsessed with both electronic dance music and esoteric teas. In one interview, Kevin says that his meticulously curated oddball image is meant to shield him from the cruel rigors of his high school’s social ladder, a claim that’s illogical and does little to make him more sympathetic.
As in its first season, American Vandal’s attention to the minutiae of its high school setting, from English teacher Ms. Montgomery’s (Sarah Burns) boundless love of Kurt Vonnegut, to the precise cost of Horchata in the school cafeteria, help make St. Bernardine an immersive, vivid backdrop. American Vandal also retains its fluency with the online zeitgeist, turning recent meme-able moments into major factors in Sam and Peter’s investigation. The pair eliminates suspects based on a 2017 Apple keyboard glitch, and discover that the Turd Burglar’s laxative was Molitol—the key ingredient in a gummy bear brand which is now, after it’s Amazon customer reviews went viral, associated with bowel discomfort. References such as these contribute to the show’s illusion of verisimilitude and further the sensation that the Turd Burglar was terrorizing St. Bernadine at an exact, recognizable moment in history.
The show’s internet literacy is part of the season’s overarching focus on the role of social media in the lives of young people. Eventually, the hunt for the Turd Burglar culminates with a truly transgressive event at St. Bernadine that recalls a number of notable real-life internet privacy violations. This final prank, if it can even be called that, ushers in a timely portrayal of internet crime, but the moment is tonally jarring, and perhaps too grimly realistic to qualify as comedy. As the season approaches its conclusion, it becomes harder to ascertain what exactly, beyond poop, American Vandal finds funny.