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Netflix’s Hidden High School Comedy Gem

American Vandal

Photo by charlesdeluvio / Unsplash

American Vandal is one of the greatest works of high school-based media ever.

It has the realism of Freaks and Geeks (though I think American Vandal is more realistic), it’s funnier than Napoleon Dynamite, not nearly as crude as American Pie or Porky’s, almost as sweet as Ten Things I Hate About You, and as poignant as Mean Girls. It avoids the pretentiousness of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (admittedly, I hate that movie), is more multi-dimensional than The Breakfast Club, and has the wit of Superbad. Final bonus: its actors look like high schoolers (looking at you, Grease!).

I enjoy American Vandal as much or more than any of the shows I just listed. I rank it second only to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

If you are ready to disregard my opinion because I think Napoleon Dynamite is funny, the plot of American Vandal will hardly redeem your impression of me.

The plot: When someone spray paints penises on all the teacher’s cars, causing about $100,000 worth of damages, everyone at the school know who to blame: Dylan Maxwell. The school expels Dylan and intends to bring him to court for property damage. But two film students indulge in their love for true crime and try to answer the perennial question: “Who really drew the dicks?” (My apologies for the vulgarity, but that is the show's catchphrase.)

The entire show is filmed in mockumentary style, as though we are watching the work of the film students, which has a wonderfully immersive effect that is sustained by the show’s perfect performances, excellent writing, and attention to detail.

But what I love most about the show is that I can identify every single character with someone who was at my high school. There’s the “cool teacher'; the chill football coach; the insufferable honor student who tries too hard not to be a nerd; the politically, athletically, and socially active honor student who seems to have everything going for her but is about to burst.

The bullies are not outright mean to anyone so much as judgmental and gossipy. It's part of the weird hierarchical social ecosystem we make teenagers endure but rarely manifests itself in physical violence. Maybe high school used to be different, but in my four years (2013–2017), I never saw anyone shoved into a locker. It also never happens in this show.

This show goes beyond the mere cliques and cliches that every other high school-based movie or TV show covers. Even the characters with only a few lines talk like I'd expect . . . but without becoming a shallow stereotype.

For instance, when the film students are gathering opinions on the football coach, some of the girls think he’s “a douche,” some girls think he’s attractive, and the football players think he’s tough on them but overall, cool . . . they also smirk at the fact he has dated almost every attractive single mom in the high school.

As a side note, this led to the film students eagerly carrying out an investigation on the most attractive moms at the school.

I won’t try to explain all the jokes, but the humor is almost all character-driven. It’s a splendid example of the writers developing characters naturally and letting the jokes tell themselves. The humor can be crude, but no cruder than what you hear in high school. Absurd, but no more absurd than high school.

The ultimate selling point, though, is Dylan Maxwell, portrayed by YouTuber Jimmy Tatro. Tatro nails his role as exactly the type of kid who would spray paint penises on cars. Once again, I went to school with many kids like him. And unlike other high school media where this would make him the cool kid or feared by everyone else, I found American Vandal’s approach to his character much truer to my experience. The rest of the students don’t admire his antics, rather they write him off as a stupid stoner whose jokes were funny in middle school but are now played out.

American Vandal walks the lines of high school realism, but it's entertaining for everyone. I think it's the only series that all nine people in my family . . . from my middle-aged parents to teenage little sister . . . loved. It's amusing and mocking, but also heartfelt. It's simple like you'd expect from high school film students but professionally crafted.

In short, I highly recommend this show to anyone who went to public high school.

If you went to a rich private school, then the second season of American Vandal is for you.

Overall Score: 9.5/10