Last year, “American Vandal” stormed onto the scene as one of the very best shows on television. Like “Stranger Things,” the series became a shockingly relevant high point for Netflix. The true-crime parody of a school traumatized by dick drawings became a smash hit. It even won a Peabody for the strong writing that held the season and joke together. It was an amazing high that would be next to impossible to live up to. Sadly, season 2 does not quite hit the highs of the first. Still, it turns in a strong second season, even if it does not quite capture the magic of the first.
This season our documentarians/investigators, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) head to the Pacific Northwest. The two have been summoned to a school where a poop-inducing prank left dozens to evacuate their bowls in the halls. With three pranks confirmed, the “Turd Burglar” left the school in fear. When a weird student confesses to the crimes, many believe the matter to be solved. However, with suspicions of a false confession, Peter and Sam dive into the case.
The first season thrived from the commitment to the 4-hour dick joke, and this season scores on that level again. Poop jokes can be funny, and the wordplay and humor are present throughout. The investigation by Peter and Sam can be legitimately funny at times, and both Alvarez and Gluck give strong performances again. The mystery takes some crazy turns this time around, and many audiences will be surprised by the finale that unfolds in the last two episodes.
Despite this, there’s something missing this time around. The painful reconstruction of a party through Snapchat and Instagram was a highlight of season 1. Nothing like that comes up this time. The same for dramatic reenactment videos featuring computer-generated characters getting handjobs. Some of the natural true crime parody moments that made Season 1 feel so winning get dropped here.
The show loses its urgency almost immediately. During the first investigation, Peter and Sam would release episodes online, and the characters of the show would directly respond to their accusations. However, this time, Netflix picked up our protagonists. The Netflix (drop the whole season at once) model prevents the weekly build that brought life to the first season. While it forces Sam and Peter to become better sleuths, it also takes away a strong piece of the drama.
However, the story we’re given crafts some compelling characters. Melvin Gregg, who plays basketball star DeMarcus Tillman, thrives throughout the season. He brings a jokester and athletic superstar charisma to the screen. He also grew up away from private school life, only given this chance because of his athletic ability. DeMarcus becomes instantly recognizable in the modern sports landscape. His journey from beginning to end helps to add an emotional urgency the story desperately needed. Considering Gregg is due to portray a basketball star in Steven Soderberg’s upcoming film “High Flying Bird,” you can expect great things in his future.
Actresses Taylor Dearden and Kiah Stern both stand out, with Dearden taking on a larger role over the course of the show. Both actresses bring out the reality of the high school experience for women in different ways. Their emotional struggle feels real and gives appropriate weight to their sacrifices. Actor DeRon Horton also adds an interesting level to the season. He brings an intensity that really shines through at times, including some great standout scenes.
Finally, Travis Trope brings a melancholic performance to life in some brilliant flashes. The character feels sympathetic and soul-crushingly alone at times. However, the character feels underwritten for stretches, which ultimately hurts the audience’s ability to connect with him. However, we never rally around the character of Kevin McClain the same way we did for Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) in season 1. That will be what makes many consider this a sophomore slump, and that falls on the writers, not Trope.
This time around, “American Vandal” hits some great highs. Yet the series takes a step back from its incredible first season. The problem with bringing back a surprise hit like “American Vandal” is that it loses the surprise element that made it so fantastic the first time around. Still, “Vandal” and its writers prove they understand how to write most high school students. With this season taking more of a step toward telling a high school story than a true-crime parody, we lose some of the intensity and humor. Still, it is a worthwhile sophomore season for the high school comedy.