What kind of monster would spray-paint crude penises on 27 late-model cars? “American Vandal,” my new favorite show, attacks that question with all the seriousness of its artistic forerunner, “Making a Murderer.” A crime has been committed, and two high-school filmmakers become obsessed with unearthing evidence and following it wherever it leads.
It doesn’t seem to matter that one crime is sophomoric vandalism, and the other is a brutal sex murder. That’s what makes “Vandal” such a sharp satire. Like “Making a Murderer,” there are plot twists and apparent coverups, multiple suspects and motives and seemingly endless fan theories. Like “Murderer,” you come to realize that the proliferating genre of true-crime documentary is not about the thirst for truth, but the thirst for entertainment in the misfortune of others.
The show’s protagonist, Dylan Maxwell, is a mouth-breathing lug who is exactly the sort of person who’d amuse himself by drawing dicks on cars — or, really, any other flat surface. He has a history of it. There’s also an eye-witness. It appears to be an open-and-shut case.
Then new clues start popping up: phone videos and contradictory testimony, taped messages and inconsistent timelines. There’s something about a hand-job and a nerd’s specious claim to have drunk 11 beers at a party.
It’s all done with the deadly earnest tone of “JFK,” Oliver Stone’s surreal take on the Kennedy assassination. Actually, Stone kind of created this genre, didn’t he? This idea that nothing can be what the evidence suggests, that conspiracy is so much more interesting than the obvious.
He’s right, of course. The most surprising thing about “American Vandal” is how interesting the story is even when you know it’s satire. Who needs true crime when a fake one can be so compelling? I love the subtlety of this show. It never winks at the camera and it’s all the funnier because of it. It’s deft enough that I suspect a number of Trump voters won’t get the joke.