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‘American Vandal’ and vandalizing preconceptions

by Dakota Gordon

One of the more powerful aspects of the concept of a satire is the things it means to present behind its wall of comedy or pseudo-seriousness. While not determinately exclusive, satire can be an enlightening foundation for saying things in a manner that does not have to exude the natural pressures of heavy topics or grievances. American Vandal is a Netflix exclusive series classified as a “Mockumentary,” a parody documentary which takes on the now distinguished trope of mediatized criminal investigation. A boy named Peter decides to make a documentary surrounding a catastrophic event that took place at his school, where male genitalia were spray painted onto the cars of every teacher employed there. A renowned troublemaker by the name of Dylan is outed as the perpetrator, but is he really guilty of the crime, seeing as the school only has his reputation to constitute as evidence?

An eight-episode series spanning between 30-40 minutes (typically), one can binge this series within an afternoon. Yet it is the attention to detail and the constant back-and-forth that the series employs that makes the investigation so compelling. Near the beginning, it is all but explicitly stated that Peter believes Dylan is innocent of the crime, simply on the basis that there is no hard evidence to back up the claim of his guilt. As it continues, more doubt is cast upon the reliability of Dylan as a character, with more secrets being revealed about the student body—and even the faculty—becoming more intricate than what lets on. I pondered upon how the entire documentary would focus on proving Dylan’s innocence, despite Peter’s insistence otherwise, only to be met by the usurping of my expectations and in its place a buffet of different interpretations of society’s social pressures and norms. It feels a lot longer than what it really is, as the pacing, albeit slower in the middle sequences, feels as though a whole year has passed by, rather than a little less than a standard school day.

Marvelously presented as both a comedy and a critique of a number of different themes, American Vandal is more than just finding out who drew genitalia on cars. It’s the “why.” Why put the genitalia there? Why blame the troublemaker with no evidence? Why not consider those with clean imagery as capable candidates? Why not suspect the push for using a scapegoat to rid an environment of what most consider a pest? The most involved passion behind the basis of this mockumentary is the little details, the things that one can affordably question behind the actions of an individual or a group with power. What things outside of our control can make us do, and what people with that control are capable of doing to ensure they have that power. Most importantly, it is a reminder that everyone is human. Everyone has faults and everyone has their issues. What may or may not be apparent to those looking on from the outside does not justify the preconceptions of who a person is or isn’t.

It was a harmless documentary dedicated to finding the truth. As it progressed, it unearthed the manipulations of human nature and the way it allows people to point fingers at the things they believe they understand. It’s much more than finding the truth, but that isn’t to say it’s one such definitive resolution. The ending is kept rather vague, such is the situation at present that it hints at critiquing. Only we, as those under scrutiny by the vandals behind American Vandal can take the responsibility to ensure that our lives are meaningful and just, without having to resort to living within convenience. We may never know who drew the genitalia. We do know, however, that the list of suspects grows as their souls come to life.

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