American Vandal: how a mockumentary about dicks serves as a cautionary tale to us all
The penis-centred parody speaks some unexpected truths
Who drew the dicks? Peter Maldonado is desperate to find out. So much so that the Californian high school student and aspiring filmmaker sets out to conduct an in-depth investigation in search of an answer. One which, following the expulsion of world-class doofus, Dylan Maxwell, aims to uncover the true perpetrator behind the scandal of the century: some lionhearted prankster spray painted 27 dicks on 27 cars in the teacher’s parking lot.
At a glance, nothing really distinguishes American Vandal from any other true crime documentary. An evil has been committed. Someone is being blamed. A group of justice-seeking individuals embark on an investigative journey to either confirm or deny the alleged perpetrator’s culpability. Only American Vandal is not a documentary at all, but a mockumentary – in which Maldonado is not a real filmmaker, but a fictional character played by the masterfully straight-faced actor, Tyler Alvarez. So convincing is this parody that it took me three episodes and a humiliating lunchtime exchange at the office to recognise that the Netflix original was a farce. Despite my initial disappointment at this realisation, the eight-part series was captivating from start to finish.
Given the frenzy surrounding true crime documentaries these days, it’s hardly surprising that some creative cats in the industry took it upon themselves to make light of the genre. What was more unexpected, however, was the extent to which it hit the nail on the head. Featuring countless interviews with students and teachers, various witness statements and intense brainstorms over possible motives and alibis of suspects, American Vandal explicitly draws inspiration from the likes of Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Central Park Five – but with a hilarious twist. The quintessential highschool drama throughout - such as discrediting the main witness’ testimony because he’d previously lied about getting a hand job from the hottest girl at school - lifts the mood of each episode without straying too far from a credible true crime plotline. Nothing is more illustrative of this balance between the absurd and the logical than one of the strongest pieces of evidence found in favour of notorious penis-drawer, Dylan: not one of the 27 dicks had ball hairs. Dylan would never forget the ball hairs.
Most unanticipated of all about this penis-centred mockumentary is that it actually taps into a considerably weighty issue when it comes to documentary filmmaking: the questionable capacity of the director to be wholly impartial. Maldonado’s investigation takes him from zero to hero almost overnight, and what he gains in recognition amongst his teenage comrades he begins to lose in diplomacy. The filmmaker almost explodes with rage when a hot-headed moment leads him to the - later proven to be - erroneous conclusion that Dylan did in fact commit the atrocity with the help of his girlfriend, Mac. Had he finalised his investigation at that point, Dylan would have been conclusively incriminated with nominal room for persuasion on the contrary.
Whether it’s acknowledgement, popularity, political agenda or ethical stance, isn’t there always going to be something that affects the neutrality of a documentary filmmaker? Amanda Knox, O.J. Simpson, Aileen Wuornos. All subjects of influential documentaries which were embarked upon with, no doubt, the best intentions but which you come away from with a pretty clear idea as to their guilt or lack thereof. Fortunately, Maldonado learns from his mistakes and, whilst he does place an emphasis on one particular suspect in concluding his investigation, he embellishes his findings with cautionary disclaimers. But can we entrust all investigative journalists with such prudence?
American Vandal is seriously funny, and not just because every other word is either dick, balls or bellend (although admittedly that wasn’t wasted on me either). As a devoted documentary enthusiast, I can’t say I was all too impressed with myself when it dawned on me that I was as enthralled by a parody true crime series about spray-painted phalluses as I was by some real life in-depth investigations. But in questioning the feasibility of wholly unbiased journalism, American Vandal does speak some truths. A mockumentary about dicks that serves as a cautionary tale...I guess there’s a first for everything.