Penetrating the Depths of Teenage Life: Digital Participation and Subversive Sleuthing on Netflix’s American Vandal

by Jordan Adler Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 23 minutes (5626 words)

Note: The following is an analysis of the hit Netflix true crime parody American Vandal. That series is told through a high-school sophomore’s fictional documentary series – one also called “American Vandal.” When referring to the Netflix series, American Vandal will appear in italics. When referring to the fictional show-within-the-show, “American Vandal” will appear surrounded by quotation marks. There are also going to be spoilers.

“[W]hen you talk to these 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds about social media they use and how they interact with people, what it’s like in school, it’s not like The Breakfast Club where the jocks and the geeks and the goths are all at separate tables. It’s a mishmash.”

-Tony Yacenda, co-creator of American Vandal 1


Read any long-form entertainment column from the fall of 2017 fawning over the mockumentary series American Vandal, and you get a sense that the reviewer was tickled by the show’s blend of irreverent adolescent humour and serialized true crime conventions. The series is told in the form of the documentary mini-series “American Vandal,” the tireless effort of budding filmmaker (and nerdy high-school sophomore) Peter Maldonado, played by Tyler Alvarez. It is Peter’s aim to uncover the truth surrounding a case of vandalism at Hanover High School. The prime suspect, a slacker prankster named Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), was expelled for allegedly spray-painting penises on the cars of 27 teachers in the school’s staff parking lot. Dylan’s long history of outlining phalluses on Spanish class whiteboards, alongside his reputation as an academic under-achiever, makes him a credible suspect on the surface. Meanwhile, a student eyewitness, Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), even claims he saw the troublemaker in the thrall of committing the vandalism. But Dylan categorically denies his involvement in the prank, prompting Peter’s investigation through the popular true crime documentary form.

Due to the aforementioned vulgarity of the criminal activity to its makers’ lack of restraint from using sexual innuendo – every title for the series’ eight episodes is a phallocentric double entendre – television critics were surprised by the show’s absorbing mystery and commitment to its genre. Peter’s “American Vandal” adheres largely to the conventions of true crime storytelling, a subgenre of mystery that has gripped audiences in various media (primarily, podcasts and documentary mini-series) in recent years. In the fourth episode, the sophomore even explains to an attorney that his episodic series is “kind of like Serial,” referring to the massively successful American podcast and its first season, which concentrated on the murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee. However, beyond its expert pastiche, American Vandal accentuates the methods through which today’s teenagers participate and thrive on social networks and digital spaces. The bulk of Peter’s reconnaissance relies on the young adult’s intricate knowledge of numerous websites and online applications, as well as his classmates’ obsessiveness with habitually documenting their lived experience. Whereas Serial built its case on evidence like cell tower data records, “American Vandal” is cleverly concocted from piecing together archives of a seemingly nondescript contemporary teenage experience, accumulated and archived on virtual platforms and social media sites.

The young creator’s faith in these primary digital sources does not just ensure that there is a flurry of evidence through which he and best friend Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) can sift, but also foregrounds the value of bringing a genre typically set in the domain of professional authorities to amateur sleuths. The teenagers’ intimacy and involvement with the systems and networks through which their peers communicate make them especially credible as detectives. As arts journalist Anna Silman wrote in a review of the show for The Cut, American Vandal’s creators, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, “understand how teens’ perpetually documented world provides all the fodder you need for forensic investigation.” 2 Facebook profile pictures, Instagram messages, Snapchat “Boomerangs,” and rap parodies on YouTube are all fair game for these detectives to use as evidence to argue for Dylan’s acquittal or discredit a key witness. Moreover, the comedy self-reflexively monitors the burgeoning popularity and viral success of “American Vandal,” to the point that Hanover High School students subsequently use digital spaces like Twitter to suggest alternate theories as to the identity of the dick-drawing culprit.

The engagement that young millennials have with digital technology and networks grounds the series in an authenticity that feels recognizable to modern high-schoolers – a realism that further validates a mystery with a puerile joke at its core. Meanwhile, just as the overwhelming presence of smartphone footage and Twitter feeds helps Peter’s investigation, American Vandal also focuses on a protagonist equipped with the resources and expertise to bring together these disparate pieces of evidence into something cohesive and concrete. (He also attends a secondary school with enough funding for audiovisual gear that he can employ for this project.) The budding filmmaker, honing his skills during an age when youths frequently film and upload personal projects to YouTube and similar platforms, can also more easily interview his peers and document the daily life at Hanover High School. Young adults feel comfortable and confident while participating in media productions in an age of widespread video sharing, and they are eager to be supporting players – a chorus of networked participants, if you will – in this high-school mystery.

Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary Teenagers

“Gag Order,” the sixth episode of American Vandal, opens on a setting that should be familiar for any high-school student in the twenty-first century: an unimaginative assembly about cyber-bullying, lethargically performed by students. This gathering is first shown from the perspective of a school-sanctioned camera in the front row of the auditorium, shooting the three performers head-on, before an offscreen shout from the audience bellows, “I drew the dicks!” It’s Christa Carlyle (played by G. Hannelius), the overachieving student council president, standing proudly and erect, as if she were claiming to be Spartacus. A couple of seconds after this proclamation, more students pop up from their seats to shout the same claim, until the majority of seniors attending that assembly are standing and chanting those four piercing words.

The various outbursts around the auditorium, starting with Christa’s, are captured on smartphone cameras from a few angles; we recognize that this is user-generated video through the vertical, rectangular aesthetic inherent to that method of filmmaking. This amateur photography provides a purposefully jarring contrast to the crisp professionalism of the scene’s initial moments. The opening scene ends when the school’s vice principal orders the seniors, who are disrupting the ceremony in raucous solidarity, to stop filming. The fervor and the visualization of this groundswell belongs to, and resembles, the modus operandi of contemporary teenage culture – a device that can fit into one’s pocket, and that can ably capture this school-bound revolution.

This moment is one of many examples within American Vandal that exposes the primacy of the smartphone camera and reveals the ways that young adults can stun and subvert adult authorities through their consumption of and proficiency with digital networks. There is also an ingenious point of irony to this opening sequence of “Gag Order”: the subject for the hastily-organized assembly is cyber-bullying. The protest that breaks out at this event, one that sympathizes with the “wronged” Dylan Maxwell, shows the growing disparity between the knowledge and power that teenagers have on digital domains and the more limited understanding of educators to keep up with the subversive influences of contemporary technologies. It is a useful marker for the rest of the episode, which examines the tug between Hanover High School officials and Peter and Sam for the way that “American Vandal” has disrupted the status quo on campus. (The sophomores are blamed for spawning the frenzy among the seniors and are subsequently told they cannot film or work on this project on school grounds.)

American Vandal is a mystery that fundamentally prioritizes user-generated content through its eight episodes, and Netflix’s comedy series can extend to this length due to the seemingly inexhaustible trove of evidence that teenagers can cull from digital sources. If the vitality of one lead fails, Peter and Sam can still pursue new angles through perusing readily available social media channels. As Megan Farokhmanesh observed in an article about the series for The Verge, American Vandal “envisions the documentary process in more modern terms, creating a future where platforms like Snapchat or Instagram become tools of record for would-be detectives.” [[Unlike the slowly building maps of evidence that customarily ensure that documentarians can spend years on a long-form true crime project, the wealth of digital alternatives available to Peter and Sam in their rigorous need to find the truth ensures that “American Vandal” can actually be produced and distributed over the last few months of the Hanover school year. The writers and filmmakers of American Vandal, as evidenced in the quotation that opened this essay, eagerly took advantage of the frequency in which young, digitally-literate people have chronicled their daily routines on the Internet. Peter and Sam have the ability to extensively navigate these virtual records because of the ways younger millennials document and share many quotidian features of their teenage experience online.

Alas, the young director behind “American Vandal” has his work cut out for him. The key reason why so many of the episodes derive from intricately spliced fragments of digital conversations, text messages, confessionals, and prank videos – to name a few of the communicative modes filtered into this investigation – is due to how youths express their contemporary selves in the realm of the digital. The students of Hanover High School pick different platforms and styles to communicate and create with their fellow students; subsequently, Peter can then introduce us to different suspects, witness, and other characters, validating or undermining them through the ways they use new, digital technologies. Peter even distributes “American Vandal,” episode by episode, on Vimeo. As the teenage detective mentions throughout his mini-series, the project has a purpose beyond uncovering the truth about the spray-painted phalluses and possibly acquitting the prime suspect, but to be a platform to show off Peter’s skills as a filmmaker. The production value of this student-assembled work helps link American Vandal to a mode of realism, and we can more readily accept the conceit that we are watching a serialized documentary made by youths. Peter is trying to follow the conventions of a heralded genre while simultaneously taking advantage of his access to teenagers and their virtually preoccupied statuses.

The series’ reception on Vimeo is, itself, a sly use of product placement, as that platform contains many cosmetic similarities to one of the most influential online destinations for young millennials: YouTube. As communications professor Michael Strangelove wrote in Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People, the advent of those platforms were helpful for budding artists, as they “[have] altered the amateur’s relationship to the television and film industries and expanded the commercial motives for amateur filmmaking.” 3 While American Vandal contains many instances of YouTube’s cultural permanence, such as Dylan’s dumb prank videos with his stoner enclave, the WayBack Boys, being uploaded on that website to a smattering of followers, the series also uses Peter’s exhibition on a similar web portal to show how frequently youths devour media content on these networks.

While chronicling the everyday patterns of a generation raised on YouTube, Peter also takes advantage of the comfort many of Hanover High School’s students feel on camera. He finds an interest among his student body to be included in this series, and many willingly offer their commentary to plot developments. Even the opening scene of the first episode shows Dylan’s discomfort during the early moments of an interview: instead of looking at Peter as he answers the sophomore’s initial questions, Dylan stares at the camera, as if that is the preordained place that he, a producer of YouTube content, would normally look. Dylan’s gaze in this opening scene recalls the mode of the online video diary, a form of broadcasting with tremendous appeal for Internet audiences. [[Ibid, 81. These spaces, not regulated by adults or peripheral authorities, have provided an outlet for youths to communicate with peers and potentially expand their social worth. Just as the alleged vandal and the numerous students interviewed for “American Vandal” use Peter’s camera to tout their claims, the presence of the camera also allows them to think about the way they can present themselves in front of others.

Furthermore, the teenage authorship of “American Vandal” enables the Netflix series to eschew some of the cautionary overtones often featured on television programs that explore the relationships between teenagers and technology. In her book Worried About the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk, and Opportunity in the Digital World, professor Jacqueline Ryan Vickery introduces her subject through examining the ways that crime-oriented television series have relied on tropes surrounding the ways that the Internet can lure teens into unsafe spaces, where they become the victims of predatory behaviour. 4

While Perrault and Yacenda’s Emmy-nominated comedy explicitly mines the relationship between teens and their connections with technology, the makers also prioritize the autonomous, productive nature of how young people thrive and create in digital spaces. Instead of showing technology as a threat for gullible young adults, American Vandal focuses on the creative flair of twenty-first century Americans, in an age where there are fewer barriers for aspiring artists to create absorbing media content.

Verifying Accounts

Many of the high-schoolers featured in “American Vandal” depend on the social reach of the Internet and mobile technologies to bolster their popularity. For instance, the snivelling Alex Trimboli, who admitted to school authorities that he saw Dylan commit the vandalism, is not particularly beloved by the Hanover graduating class, partially due to his ostensible desperation to elevate his social status on social media. Since Alex’s testimony was the main piece of evidence that led to Dylan’s suspension, Peter notes the various methods the eyewitness may have exaggerated other details about his life, to discredit Alex’s validity as the key eyewitness. Under intensified scrutiny from the teenage filmmakers (who also possess some of the same social maladjustments as Alex), the senior is often the target of much scorn throughout American Vandal. When watching snippets of cell phone footage from various times at a rowdy Saturday night party – an event described throughout the series as “Nana’s Party” – Peter and Sam expose that Alex was drinking from the exact same bottle of beer at many points that evening, running contrary to the teen’s claims that he finished a whopping 11 bottles at that bash. Here, Alex’s urge to hyperbolize his credentials as a consummate partier ends up poking a hole in his legitimacy as a witness.

In another scene, Hanover students discuss how Alex tried to overcompensate for his lack of popularity through Facebook posts, such as one where he left a eulogizing message on a student’s page after his death. The teenagers observe that Alex was not actually a close friend of the deceased. Social media popularity is clearly important to Alex: he even reveals, on camera, that his Instagram follower count rose in the weeks following the vandalism. Peter claims that this boost came as a result of his testimony against Dylan – a move that helped to bring back coveted off-campus lunches for Hanover seniors. While Alex is wrapped up in elevating his social status through digital means, onlookers from the American Vandal ensemble criticize his poseur behaviours – and end up helping to deconstruct his ulterior motives for wanting to finger Dylan as the vandal.

Furthermore, Peter spends a few minutes in the fourth episode documenting the online activism of Christa, the aforementioned student council president, who is outspoken about various supposed indignities on the campus. Here, he tries to build a case to explain why she, a member of the school’s televised morning show and therefore one with access to the school’s security footage (deleted at the time of the vandalism), may have been the perpetrator. Videos posted on her Facebook and Instagram accounts show her propensity to use online platforms to draw attention to activist causes, and Peter argues that Christa’s incendiary stabs at student activism – a YouTube video of her pouring laundry detergent down the steps to show the “slippery slope” of bullying, for example – could have irked fellow students and laid groundwork for her possible revenge. The filmmaker also wonders if the spray-painted phalluses could be another “abstract political statement.”

Yet the character whose virtual presence is most significant within “American Vandal” is the suspected wrongdoer, Dylan. Despite his dimwitted antics and relaxed personality, the alleged vandal is also a competent cinematographer (for the high-school morning show) and producer of online media. Dylan films and uploads vulgar prank videos – an assemblage of juvenile titles shown throughout the series include “Baby Farting Pt. 2” – with his stoner pals, the WayBack Boys. In the first episode, as Peter compiles a montage of the skateboarding- and toilet humour-oriented clips produced by these students, Dylan even discusses the aesthetic differences between the earlier and later videos, elaborating his own motives to improve as a filmmaker. Meanwhile, he is compulsively absorbed in digital spaces as they relate to his tumultuous relationship with girlfriend Mackenzie Wagner (Camille Ramsey). Their status as a couple can shift as a result of Dylan’s impulsive reactions, Peter explains, and these swings often involve an occurrence on social media. Technology remains a vital part of their romantic stability, or lack thereof: as Peter demonstrates in “Growing Suspicion,” a parody of the rap song “Rack City” that Dylan posted for Mackenzie on YouTube was a romantic gesture that won her back several years earlier. However, Mackenzie had also put the brakes on their relationship at “Nana’s Party,” after Dylan posted an “ugly Boomerang” of her, referring to an app that allows users to make short looped videos akin to a GIF.

Even Dylan’s alibi during the time of the vandalism, according to him, is that he went to Mackenzie’s house as a response to a vague Instagram post, which he speculated was an invitation. That the character so quickly interpreted a rote message (“home bored…”) as a signal for him to make up with Mackenzie is one piece of evidence for how Dylan is susceptible to misunderstanding modern communication, where language often leaves much room for subjectivity. Still, his intimacy with digital media also helps to, eventually, verify that Dylan could not possibly be the vandal. That coveted piece of online evidence is a time-stamped video of Dylan walking in on Mackenzie exposing her breasts to an anonymous online user on Twitch, a gaming website. In the penultimate episode, Peter narrates that Mackenzie spent a lot of time on this website as an escape from thinking about her parents’ rocky divorce. (“She gained a following. People would watch her consistently beat guys twice her age. She loved it.”) The video evidence that clears Dylan’s name comes from the perspective of Mackenzie’s webcam; he happened to walk in on her when she was exposing her chest to an offscreen male (presumably) with whom she engaged in a virtual conversation in the Twitch chatroom.

Tracking “Nana’s Party”

In the fifth episode, “Premature Theories,” one realizes the scope of Peter’s uploaded project as its own media text – one that has spawned numerous fan theories. The potential for “American Vandal” to find an online audience of devotees, whose enveloped ardor for the mystery ends up helping to shape the latter episodes of Peter’s investigation, can only thrive in a virtual space akin to the larger, less curated databases of YouTube, where a student project made with enough professionalism can become a viral success. The technical and narrative accomplishments of earlier installments of “American Vandal” also introduce Peter to a phenomenon that many youths crave in the domain of online media: virality. The videos the WayBack Boys create, alongside Christa’s spread of Internet activism, both aim for large online audiences, but fail to yield numbers remotely close to Peter’s mystery mini-series.

The viral success of “American Vandal” is evident in two sequences from within the show. At the top of “Premature Theories,” we observe the impact of the Vimeo-supported series, where its fans have created extra-textual additions: a “Free Dylan” GoFundMe-like campaign, fan reaction videos and episode commentaries on YouTube, a collage of tweets (tethered by the hashtag #WhoDrewTheDicks) speculating different theories that could absolve Dylan of his guilt. Here, the “meme”-ification of “American Vandal” recalls contemporary fan efforts to discuss and debate the minutiae of their favourite television shows on web forums and social networking sites like Twitter. This galvanized reaction mirrors the way that the Internet provides a forum for those who engage with this media to participate in the conversation, “speaking back” through their own productions. 5

That the grassroots documentary series manages to attract an overwhelming fan following, both within and beyond the Hanover High School student body, is itself a deft storytelling tool. Not only can Peter and Sam find more social credibility among their peers, but they can crowdsource ideas and angles they may not have initially considered, as well as magnify the amount of evidence through which they can consider as pertinent to Dylan’s case. The bulk of “Premature Theories” illustrates this: here, Peter and Sam track the happenings at “Nana’s Party,” a raucous annual event that many of the show’s supporting characters had attended and mentioned in previous episodes, to craft a chronological timeline that could reveal evidence of Dylan and the WayBack Boys planning the vandalism. Taking advantage of the fan support his Vimeo-distributed series has ignited, Peter crowdsources this section of his investigation – “Everyone wants to be involved,” he admits early in this episode – to the partygoers who were recording notable snippets of the Saturday night mischief on Snapchat.

As socially reticent sophomores, Peter and Sam were not invited to “Nana’s Party” and must resort to using secondary sources. Regardless, the wealth of digitized, time-stamped smartphone footage that the invitees are happy to share with the young documentarians makes them virtual attendees: they can use this footage to track the timelines of conversations and party shenanigans. In this extended sequence, the high-school sleuths try to uncover whether the long conversation Dylan and his friends were having on the living room couch was about planning the prank involving the spray-painted penises – and given the flurry of posts around this party on social media, the investigators already have a broad base from which to pick. (Beyond the dimly lit imagery emanating from the smartphones, Peter also makes intricate computerized maps of various rooms of the house and backyard to track the whereabouts of the usual suspects.) Manipulating the muffled audio mix from a collection of bite-sized video clips, Peter tries to catch stray sentences from the couch-dwelling Dylan and the WayBack Boys to evaluate their criminal potential. Here, the sleuth filters the investigation more immediately through the smartphone, which holds a forest of potentially incriminating pieces of digital evidence.

The “Nana’s Party” sequence epitomizes, at its purest, how American Vandal blends the tropes of addictive true crime mysteries with the digital saturation of contemporary high-school life. That Peter and Sam can delve so comprehensively into this party’s exuberance is due to the extensive number of Snapchat videos filmed and saved by the dozens of attendees. Not only do pocket-sized mobile technologies provide the service for instantaneous documentation, but they also serve as an archive for high-school weekend foolishness, virtual Polaroids that are captured spontaneously but refuse to fade. The normalization and availability of smartphone apps, proliferated broadly among middle- and upper-middle class teenagers, intensifies the connections these youths have with their peer groups. The creators of American Vandal capitalize on this onslaught of amateur video with this episode, as Peter presents the activities and conversations at “Nana’s Party” through a masterfully constructed timeline.

Meanwhile, youths that are accustomed to communicating and living vicariously through digitized images and text messages – akin to the “electronic data forest,” termed by tech journalist Nicholas Carr – are comfortable around fragmented assemblages of information. 6 Consequently, the way that the investigators so casually jump between various media formats in this episode initially seems counterproductive to the nuance and thoughtful consideration more germane to the true crime genre. The rapid pacing of this “American Vandal” episode, wherein Peter’s narration continually shifts as new information becomes available, mirrors the more hyperactive engagement teens have on technological devices. Although much of their project relies on critical thinking and reflection, in “Premature Theories,” Peter and Sam are just bouncing between user-generated clips, adapting to the mayhem and the intake of information with more speed than a comparable adult likely would while sorting through these digital phone records.

Nevertheless, the driving force of the latter half of the episode revolves around a can of red spray paint uncovered at the party: who is carrying it, where it moves, and who may have taken it home after someone called the cops. The path of this “murder weapon,” as Peter names it, can be confirmed through the immense data compiled through Instagram photos and smartphone video. Its first appearance is for a “prom-posal,” as jock Brandon Galloway (Lukas Gage) decides to scrawl a spray-painted message on a towel for his prospective date, Gabi Granger (Camille Hyde). A prolonged smartphone video of Brandon trying to use the spray paint, and having difficulty getting an initial blast from the decades-old can, helps to set up another element of Peter’s investigation: the initial target for the vandalism would have splatter on his or her car the following Tuesday. Piecing together these stray events from months earlier, the young detectives have no shortage of incriminating footage of teenage promiscuity and impulsivity – and the evidence they obtain throttles their investigation forward.

A Craving for Content

In various ways, American Vandal feels like the eventual destination for a genre as immensely popular as true crime, in an age when YouTube has substantially democratized the production and consumption of online media. Not only is the character of Dylan Maxwell a committed maker of YouTube content, but the actor who plays him, Jimmy Tatro, is known on that service for the channel LifeAccordingtoJimmy. (Currently, that channel boasts 3 million subscribers, a number and Internet savviness that would astonish the WayBack Boys.) According to showrunner Dan Lagana, the web star’s experience on YouTube helped him land the role, one that relied heavily on improvisation and natural charisma: “[Tatro] had experience in front of a camera and his timing and instincts were incredible.” 7 The web star’s hijinks and sometimes oblivious, laid-back, California-bro persona is a shared trait with Dylan, although the latter character lacks the comic personality’s self-awareness. American Vandal, due to Tatro’s involvement, is almost self-referential: it lampoons and satirizes teenage attempts at virality while featuring at its core a star and entrepreneur who has attained success in the sphere of digital content. Moreover, both Yacenda and Perrault have a history of making comedy for popular websites, such as Funny or Die and CollegeHumor.

American Vandal’s popularity as an original Netflix show is also fascinating. Popular series that have been among that subscription video-on-demand platform’s most instantly “binge-able” include true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Keepers. The addictive qualities that hook audiences of this genre also assists a series with a similar bent for cliff-hangers: it is that compulsion to discover the truth or debate the details of an investigation that makes American Vandal such a cozy fit for a service accustomed to this format of storytelling. (In the words of Netflix’s CCO, Ted Sarandos, the serialized nature of television “has an addictive quality, unlike movies where closure is reached at the end.”) 8 Moreover, audiences’ shifting preoccupations with watching television series within a condensed period, a massive change from the conventional network model, allows a comedy with a jokey premise and that satirizes a niche genre to find an audience. American Vandal has a special value for media consumers who are already familiar with the codes and conventions of the genre it mocks and deconstructs, and for teens who are engaged with the same digital networks as the student characters. The genre’s proclivity for open-ended or ambiguous conclusions allows American Vandal to end without a cogent, decisive explanation of who committed the vandalism without disappointing the expectations of its audience. However, Peter releases “American Vandal” one episode at a time, upon each one’s completion – and this pattern of exhibition runs counter to the release patterns commonly associated with Netflix series. (American Vandal’s first season had all of its episodes available simultaneously when it premiered in September 2017.) Instead, the fictionalized Vimeo-based mini-series can build its galvanized audience along a similar route as Serial; that podcasting phenomenon build its audience through word-of-mouth over several weeks.

The Short-sightedness of the Male Creator

Nevertheless, for all of their well-honed creative impulses, the teenage protagonist of American Vandal is recognizably flawed. Peter, an initially trustworthy voice of reason behind the camera, often undermines several of the students at Hanover High School in his pursuit for the truth. Despite his prowess as a budding filmmaker, he is also guilty of being a shoddy journalist. Running counter to the depth of his investigation, the student is suspiciously unconcerned for the emotional repercussions of his work on the broader student body – and he lacks empathy, throughout his investigation, toward women. As Jen Chaney wrote in an article about the series, he and Sam “consistently put people on camera without permission, misrepresent themselves in order to get information, and share private conversations that, as [character Sara] Pearson points out, aren’t germane to Dylan’s plight.” 9 These include garnering an up-close look at Sara’s summer camp “hook-up” list and repeatedly showing the “Boomerang” that Mackenzie thought was hideous enough to end her relationship with Dylan over it. Meanwhile, in the third episode, while attempting to uncover a detail few would consider pertinent to the investigation, Peter and Sam decide to blur a female student’s face and alter her voice to a squeak; however, their effort is pedestrian, and it would likely not take much effort for classmates of this student to recognize her.

In the last episodes of “American Vandal,” the protagonist even shames these women without their permission: he retrieves information about Sara’s sex life, then opens the final episode with (blurred-out) nudity of Mackenzie to help prove that Dylan was not at the scene of the vandalism. While Sara and Mackenzie intended their text messages and computer webcam video for a select, private audience, Peter’s exploitation of these interactions creates a betrayal. In doing so, the sophomore filmmaker replicates the ways that adults have slut-shamed women for their online activity and behaviour. Consequently, Sara lambasts Peter, on-camera, for the way she was undermined in a largely public sphere, while Mackenzie criticizes Peter near the end of the penultimate episode for airing students’ figurative dirty laundry at the expense of his pursuit for justice. As the latter tells him, “It’s so easy for you to sit there behind that stupid camera and make accusations about people you don’t even know!” Considering that at the very start of the following episode, Peter uses a video of Mackenzie where she is partially nude to acquit Dylan of his crimes shows how little the young sleuth has learned. Whereas the dissemination of digital sources throughout the series shows the benefits of mining online media in criminal investigations, “American Vandal” also falters as a work of ethical journalism.

In Chaney’s review of American Vandal, she illuminates how Peter’s obsessive hunt to find the culprit is realistic for a series based at a high-school: “[He] notes that teens spend a lot of time searching for answers and don’t necessarily find them, which is exactly what happens in our relationships with true-crime shows.” 10 What begins as an uncanny parody of the popular true crime genre, however, evolves into a multifaceted exploration of teens’ relationship with technology and the way that young adults’ incessant engagement with virtual spaces allows for both wild creativity and excessive vanity. The popularity of this Peabody Award-winning series goes beyond the fetishization of the true crime genre, but the realism of its depiction of twenty-first century teenage identity: one where visibility through an intensified (and constructed) online presence helps to validate social standing. Peter’s documentary project, while capitalizing on a surplus of amateur video and participatory media, exposes the complicated relationship contemporary high-schoolers have with different modes of technology, and the many ways the Internet can bolster or betray them.


  1. Agard, Chancellor. “American Vandal postmortem: Creators talk ending, ‘very detailed’ season 2 idea.” Entertainment Weekly. 19 Sept 2017. Web. 18 July 2018.
  2. Silman, Anna. “American Vandal Is the Most Realistic Portrayal of High School Ever.” The Cut. New York Media LLC. 20 Sept 2017. Web. 18 July 2018.
  3. Strangelove, Michael. Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. 23.
  4. Vickery, Jacqueline Ryan. Worried About the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk, and Opportunity in the Digital World. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2017. 4.
  5. Ibid, 151.
  6. Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 138.
  7. Arthur, Kenneth. “Talking True Crime Satire with ‘American Vandal’ Showrunner Dan Lagana.” Vulture. New York Media LLC. 13 Sept 2017. Web. 18 July 2018.
  8. Landau, Neil. TV Outside the Box: Trailblazing in the Digital Television Revolution. New York: Focal Press, 2016. 9.
  9. Chaney, Jen. “Let’s Talk About the Ending of American Vandal.” Vulture. New York Media LLC. 06 Oct 2017. Web. 18 July 2018
  10. Ibid.

Penetrating the Depths of Teenage Life: Digital Participation and Subversive Sleuthing on Netflix’s American Vandal

Jordan Adler is a Toronto-based writer, journalist, and cultural critic. His writing has appeared in Screen International, Toronto Film Scene, Arts & Opinion, The Review, We Got This Covered, and the Canadian Jewish News. He received an MA from Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, where his thesis focused on documentaries that explored nonviolent activism and peace-building movements in Israel-Palestine. His research interests include Israeli and Palestinian cinemas, representations of the Holocaust in film and television, small-screen auteurs, film festivals, and film criticism.

Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 Essays   american vandal   mockumentary   teen movies   television   true crime