American Vandal sacrifices comedy for mystery

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Minutes into the second season premiere of Netflix show American Vandal, I wanted to turn it off. The magic of the first season was always going to be hard to recapture. It had been a surprise to find a refreshing and somewhat poignant social commentary beneath a layer of middle school humour. The follow-up to that magic kicks off with hundreds of students sprinting around their school experiencing the results of laxative-spiked lemonade. It feels wrong. It’s too juvenile, even for a show that once offered a teenage girl texting “heyy” instead of “hey” as a shocking twist. Still, my desire to see Griffin Gluck mugging into the camera like he’s on an episode of The Office during otherwise serious scenes outweighed my disgust, and I soldiered on. Much like almost everything American Vandal’s writers pulled together for this season, the results were mixed.

This season sees teenage documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Gluck) take on a mysterious prankster, targeting a prestigious catholic school. Peter and Sam are the only returning cast members from season one’s lovable cohort, but the old characters are hardly missed once the new ones find their footing.

The clear standout is Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), the school’s token trench coat weirdo, who substitutes off-putting eccentricities for a personality. Tope commands full attention, often using only small mannerisms and facial expressions to humanize McClain’s brand of “serial killer weird” (Sam’s words, as he describes the type of sick freak who would dare put a period after an emoji). McClain’s foil comes in the form of DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), an immensely quotable basketball star who is idolized by the entire school despite the fact he thinks numbers are imaginary. The two characters could not be more different from each other, yet a childish laxative prank is enough to uncover their true selves, proving them more similar than not. The social commentary that comes of this, surprisingly, is far from ham-fisted; it’d hit close to home for just about anyone.

Unfortunately, our heroes Sam and Peter suffer from a change in the show’s overall style. The first season found a lot of its comedy in the budding journalists as they sneak around the school and providing their own no-budget, on-location crime imitations. Season two, however, is built around witness interviews and high quality reenactments made possible with a new Netflix budget (which is acknowledged as part of the show). This puts Sam and Peter in the backseat, mere catalysts for the twists and turns of the season. Peter’s too-serious narration and Sam’s word vomit are still present, but the lack of growth is disappointing. This is mostly fine, but opportunities to showcase Sam and Peter as genuine people are strangely also ignored. Last season, we saw a full blown break up as Peter ignoring his interviewees’ well-beings in favour of making the perfect documentary. Why, then, doesn’t Sam get upset when Peter proceeds to do the same thing this time around? Peter’s habit of ruining subjects’ lives reached unimaginable heights this season, but there weren’t any consequences this time around.

The only rationalization I can come up with for this is that the new characters and their stories were too grand to be set aside for characters we’ve already gotten to know.  For a show set in high school, there’s a lack of mean cheerleaders and shy misfits, and that’s exactly what we need from teen television. The cast feels big, yet all of the characters avoid being boiled down to a stereotype. This season’s group consists entirely of people you could meet at any high school. Not only that, but an extraordinary amount of time is spent on the inner workings of these characters. While you may miss season one’s constant absurdist humour, you’re trading it in for genuine intrigue and a satisfying resolution. In spite of the rocky start and a few bumps in the road, the new season is deeper, darker and some will appreciate the new direction.

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