Among the shit pranks, the second season of Netflix’s true crime mockumentary zones in on the web that is growing up IRL and URL
In 2017, American Vandal quietly became a Netflix original comedy hit – it spoofed the streaming platform’s own 2015 series Making a Murderer, with a spot-on satire of true crime complete with talking heads and rigorous investigations. The first season applied the sombre aesthetics of true-crime docs to the silliest mystery imaginable: who drew the dicks? Over eight episodes, American Vandal explored the crime, introducing new characters and twists, utilising the same narrative applied to actual, real-life murders.
The second season centres on the mystery of the “Turd Burglar” – a student responsible for a series of poop-oriented crimes. Perfecting the formula of the first, this season exposes its real strength: not just mocking the conventions of true crime or delivering perfect deadpan one-liners about poop, but portraying teenagers as they actually, really are. Specifically, it accurately shows how teenagers live on and through the internet.
Portraying teenagers on TV can come with some serious pitfalls. The O.C. and One Tree Hill cast adults in their 20s to play high schoolers, while Skins attempted realism by hiring teenage consultants and casting actual teens, but had them calling weed “spliff”. The second we stop being teenagers, it gets harder to write or understand them: what do they do? How do they speak? Any attempt can be cringe to watch for real, actual teens. Their culture moves fast, and so does the internet; portraying the internet in a TV show written at least months before its release is always risky, as apps fall in and out of use just as quickly. Some shows try to avoid showing outdated technology by featuring phones nobody uses or by using fake social media platforms like MyFace, but ultimately, this only detracts from the realism.
In a show where verisimilitude is everything, American Vandal focuses its attention on the minor details of the internet, as its investigators utilise this tool to scour the places that teenagers actually spend most of their time: online. In 2018 we all fancy ourselves private investigators; of exes, friends, exes’ new partners. Taking this to the extreme, American Vandal’s investigation takes place through social media, and as such, it had no choice but to be entirely accurate – no mean feat with such an ever-changing culture.
In this second season, the entire plot is based around the internet, as both crimes and investigations play out online: The Turd Burglar drops hints and brags via Instagram. From the first episode, realistic iMessage threads flood the screen, full of lexicon teens actually use – no a cringey abbreviation in sight. There are jokes about Android VS iPhone, complications over nudes sent between lovers, entire relationships arcing over Instagram DMs. A suspect is assumed to be motivated by the recurrence of an ‘On This Day’ notification from Facebook; a feature that as often as it prompts nostalgic memories with friends reminds us of exes, former mates, and people who are dead.
“You draft in the notes app, everyone knows that! Then they don’t see the ‘dot dot dot’,” says one investigator to the other when texting an informant. Here, they pinpoint the exact technological minefields that real-life teenagers navigate day-to-day. When American Vandal references older media, it’s intentional, not accidental slip-ups that feel anachronistic. Older videos of Kevin McClain as the ‘Fruit Ninja’ might seem outdated, but it’s testament to the show’s accuracy and just how quickly things move. Similarly, an Angry Birds reference only reminds us how quickly we get over fads.
“Teenagers on the show talk about being ghosted; their nudes are leaked and repurposed; they’re constantly surveilled”
Taking the viewer out of the action for even a second with a weak Facebook reference could ruin it all. The Turd Burglar catfishes students and uses hacking and revenge porn to convince other students to do his bidding, a kind of online blackmail that happens IRL all too often. We peek in at the message boards that aggravate incels and alt-right trolls, concerning movements of right now. And as in real life, communicating online isn’t just in the background; it’s ever-present, as we constantly record our every movement. As such, the apps used couldn’t be the only thing that’s realistic; the fonts used on stories are real, the captions people might use feel authentic and not on the nose, and ultimately, the emojis the Turd Burglar hold the key to the story.
But as often as American Vandal accurately pinpoints the ways that teenagers communicate online, it captures sweetly the anxieties that surround them. Teenagers on the show talk about being ghosted; their nudes are leaked and repurposed; they’re constantly surveilled. As the story progresses, it captures the darker ways online activity has a hold on our lives. For as many times as the internet is used to expose the Turd Burglar, it’s used by him to commit another crime.
American Vandal shunned the opportunity to make its closing statement ‘Internet = Bad’. The criminal (spoiler) of American Vandal’s second season is a boy who is painfully anti-internet; believing that behind social media everyone is insecure and lonely, he takes advantage of that vulnerability to blackmail students and expose their personal information. Through his hatred of social media, it becomes his only connection to the world. And after such a precise dissection of the void that social media can put between us and the teenaged pain of being left out, it would be so easy for American Vandal to end on a criticism of social media. Instead, it closes with a narration that explores the versions of ourselves that we create, concluding that the masks we wear online provide the protection needed for teenagers to grow. Ultimately, what matters is how we harness its power – something that teenagers know, but that TV producers and adults often miss.