‘American Vandal’ Defaces the Long-Form Documentary With Savage Brilliance

Nothing is sacred on Netflix, not the least their own series. “Making a Murderer” put the streaming service on the map in the long-form documentary genre. The series put the subject in the national news cycle, and the documentary itself became part of the news. It reopened a trial, reintroduced more than reasonable doubt and brought a small community into the eye of a storm. Viewers should watch at least the first episode before watching “American Vandal.”  The eight-episode series works as a standalone, but is so much funnier with the specific reference points.

In one investigative piece, a not-very-bright scrap yard owner is accused of killing a woman who came to look at one of the cars on his lot. In “American Vandal,” a really stupid stoner kid loser, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), is accused of spray-painting 27 dicks on 27 high school faculty cars and erasing the security tape, which he had access to. His only real defense? He was too stupid to do it.

Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault created the series with a “Funny or Die” ethic, but it is grander in scale than any formulaic sitcom.  “American Vandal” claims and comes off like it is produced by The Hanover High School TV Department. I believe the geek with the camera Peter Maldonado, played by Tyler Alvarez, could have made this. I’d also want to see his two, awful horror movies, and not just because his mom is apparently hot. He goes from reporter to crusader while chasing down the story, and I can totally see this Peter growing up to be Moe Rocca in his “Daily Show” years.

Dylan claims he didn’t “do the dicks,” but is expelled from school on the word of one witness and a lot of circumstantial evidence. He also faces criminal vandalism charges with a $100,000 price tag. Peter and his doubting co-producer Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) investigate whether the school board jumped on the easiest suspect, who already had a record for being beyond rehabilitation and has a documented vendetta against one of the teachers, or if Dylan spray painted the cars. Dylan is cock-proud and he says it loud, and when he’s not saying, he’s drawing it on dry erase boards with permanent marker.  Everything points to him doing the dicks except artistic license.

It all hinges on a hairless nutsack, a detail Dylan would never leave out. He sees his graffiti as art. He appreciates how funny the prank is, but has to admit it sucks that the joke is on him. Tatro loses himself in the role. He is completely convincing as the victim, but shines as the victimizer. Dylan’s mom believes her son, in this particular incident. He’s lied to her in the past and repeatedly, and she says he usually can’t fool her, but admits he occasionally does. But she believes, in this one particular case, he is telling the truth.

Everyone in the perimeter has at least partial alibis. The main suspect’s clique, the Wayback Boys Spencer Diaz (Eduardo Franco), Lucas (Lou Wilson) and Brianna “GANJ” Gagne (Jessica Juarez), were playing  conspiracy cold call on a paranoid neighbor at the time of the vandalism, but Dylan was either using the bathroom at an antique shop or at his girlfriend Mackenzie’s (Camille Ramsey) house during a crucial 20 minutes. The Wayback Boys don’t like the girlfriend much. It turns out it’s with good reason, and when Mackenzie comes clean about that, Ramsey rides a roller coaster of emotion in an unforgiving talking head close-up.

The two documentarians are fair, balanced and completely reckless in their attempt to uncover the truth. The video-journalists even examine themselves, and when they do they dig up dirt on each other that neither one wants anyone to know, has nothing to do with the case, and propels personal humiliation into the investigative dialogue. The series takes on media itself, the way the online SEO press went after any tawdry detail on the Jodi Arias trial. The investigation is extremely focused. The pieces fit and even the smallest of evidence is more than circumstantial. The fictional documentary goes viral, much like “Making a Murderer” did. It gets Facebook and YouTube fans who offer theories, some of which are solid enough to be explored.

The documentary makers wreak havoc on the lives of everyone in the path of truth. They dig through the worst of everyone’s past to fit far-flung, low-hanging-fruit clues. The reliability of the key witness hinges on whether or not Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy) lied about getting to third base with the hottest girl in the school, Sara Pearson (Saxon Sharbino). Worthy captures teenage facial tics, almost swallowing himself up in his portrayal. Everything he says gets caught somewhere between the back of his throat and the top of his head.  The character doesn’t wear braces, but Worthy’s mouth captures some kind of metallic oppression. Pearson isn’t even a suspect, because her alibi places her outside the state, but she gets the most uninvited drama. Sharbino’s restraint as Sara is the only person to take the high school documentarians to task is so piercing, it makes for the most humiliating part of the series.

Gabi Granger (Camille Hyde) gets a transportation credit on the documentary because she has a driver’s license and can drive the reporters around. Sam’s had a lifelong crush on his neighbor and blows the relationship a few times.  G. Hannelius plays senior class president and student radical Christa Carlyle. While she is a dream student, she is no teacher’s pet. She is Spartacus as a soccer star.

One of the best running gags is Peter’s growing disbelief in how good Pat Micklewaite (Jacob Houston)  does socially in high school. Pat’s name appears on two hookup lists, and gets invited to all the best parties. After a particular mention, lasting less than two seconds of air time, this reviewer gasped for air from surprise laughter. Another running gag is the cool teacher, Mr. Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan), getting himself in deeper and deeper trouble with every observation he makes on camera until he is finally credited as an “ex-teacher.”

“American Vandal” is brilliant, almost savage satire on the documentary form and on high school drama, which never changes regardless of the technology any generation can get their hands on. Everyone is more than they seem, and everyone is less. The series is subtly poignant but, more importantly, parts can make you lose your school lunch through your nose.

American Vandal” premieres Sept. 15 on Netflix.