This review of American Vandal's second season on Netflix is spoiler-free.
American Vandal's first season was about as close to a perfect television debut as you'll find. The true-crime satire was full of complex, interesting characters played by a superb cast, and it told an absurd-yet-captivating story full of twists and turns. And despite being absolutely laugh-out-loud hysterical, it still managed to be touching and poignant. Living up to the genius of "who drew the dicks?" was always going to be extra hard for season two. So did the show pull off the impossible and achieve the ridiculous standards it set in year one? The answer depends on whether you are okay with sacrificing some comedy for a more compelling story.
Season two has an almost entirely new cast, with young documentarians Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund returning. They answer the call from a student at a very elite Catholic school in Washington state to investigate whether the wrong student has been convicted of being the Turd Burglar, an anonymous online figure who has victimized the school with multiple poop-related pranks. The broad strokes of the story are still there: conflicting evidence, questionable tactics, multiple suspects, and a total commitment to not winking at the camera (even when they explain where their show is airing and why their production value looks so good). Peter and Sam use clues big, small, and laughably insane to try and determine who was responsible for a plague of poop vandalism that began with "The Brown Out," an incident where tainted lemonade forced students to crap themselves all over the halls of the school, in a sequence that is far more graphic and over-the-top than anything in season one.
Two changes make the eight-episode season feel different immediately. For one, Sam and Peter are outsiders at this school, so their own personal connections, insights, and conflicts are absent from this story. They feel removed from the events, and for the first few episodes their presence is hardly felt. Considering they were two of the funniest characters with some of the most hilarious scenes from season one, their reduced role is noticeable. However, they get more involved later, which is a big reason why the show gets funnier as it progresses.
The other major change is the accused. Unlike the main suspect of season one, the painfully dumb, absolutely hysterical Dylan, the student claiming innocence this time around is Kevin McClain, played by Travis Tope. Dylan was a bully/meathead/joker who had to earn our compassion, but Kevin is weird in a way that makes you see him as a victim immediately. He's doesn't evoke laughs as much he does sympathy. He's also very annoying, and hard to spend time with even though you are rooting for Sam and Peter to clear his name. Just as with Dylan, the more you learn about Kevin the more you see the way he has been victimized by his environment, but he's never a source of comedy the way Dylan always was.
The sadness of Kevin's life is highlighted by the fact that this season's setting is a much crueler place. High school is nasty everywhere, but the elite, fancy private school allows the show to explore a number of timely and relevant themes, many that are quite serious. The show addresses bullying, racism, classism, modern day communicational exploitation, and a number of other issues kids face today (especially in the final few episodes). This new season feel less like a Serial parody and more like a genuine social commentary on our justice system disguised in an absurd story. It's impressive how many themes it touches on, but it's even more amazing that a show about finding a "Turd Burglar" deftly comments on these issues with such a delicate touch.
That might all sound very serious for a show that starts with 40 kids shitting themselves in one of the most surreal scenes you'll ever watch, but that dichotomy is exactly what makes this story feel more compelling than that of season one. It took time to see Dylan as someone worth caring or rooting for. That made for a hilarious journey with an incredible payoff in the surprisingly emotional final two episodes, but American Vandal's second season feels like that right from the start. There are much bigger and more important ideas explored, and the stakes get bigger when the other prime suspect becomes a target of the investigation.
Dylan might have been failed by his teachers, but he was the dumb kid who tortured them and drew dicks all the time. Who else could it have been? Even if he wasn't guilty of that specific crime, he was guilty. But here all of the students, even the ones you think you're going to hate, are being punished by social systems meant to isolate and use them.
If all of this has you worried the show won't crack you up, don't worry; it is definitely still funny and there are sequences that elicit explosive laughter: Sam and Peter breaking down the minutiae of modern communication and high school life, or the overly dramatic recreation of the poop attacks, or someone talking about excrement with total sincerity. As Sam says at one point, "Poop is funny," and the inherent silliness of the vandalism makes sure comedy is never far away. It's just not as funny as season one.
Still, the changes that cut back on the humor also make the story and its characters far more interesting and affecting. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some fans find themselves tearing up at various points, with actual waterworks possible at the end.
"Who is the Turd Burglar?" is the question Sam and Peter are trying to unravel, but whether season two lives up to the show's first will depend on whether you prefer more comedy or more compassion in your story. No matter how you answer that, American Vandal is still a great show. We shit you not.
4 out 5 stars
All episodes of American Vandal season two premiere on Netflix on Friday, September 14.
Are you excited for the new season? What do you hope to see from it? Tell us in the comments below.