American Vandal: Season 2 (Netflix) (2018)
The second season of American Vandal is even more complex and sophisticated than the first. It also sits even more precipitously on the nexus between true crime parody and true crime sincerity, as if to capture the extent to which contemporary true crime, as a genre and mode, has taken on aspirations and ambitions so expansive that they almost inevitably slip into self-parody beyond a certain point. For American Vandal, those aspirations centre on the claims that true crime television, in particular, makes regarding social and technological mediation. On the one hand, true crime delights in exposing blind spots of mediation – situations where the information saturation of our modern world either falls short, or in which it was only present in an inchoate or cursory form (it’s no coincidence that true crime series, from The Keepers to Making a Murderer, often situate key moments around the late 90s and early 00s, a period when the social media omniscience of the contemporary moment was just starting to coalesce and articulate itself). Conversely, true crime television typically functions as an incitement to media discourse – and an incitement to a collective media event capable of compensating for these media blind spots with the full force of Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and all the other platforms that are so crucial to true crime fandom.
By presenting a fictitious crime in the guise of this true crime rhetoric, American Vandal precludes this second part of the contemporary true crime equation, detailing surreal situations that do indeed seem to revolve around media blind spots, such as the spectacular scene in the first season in which all the SmartPhone footage of a house party was collated – but without inciting the audience to any media discourse of their own. Without encouraging the viewer to engage in either active or passive remediation of the events of the crime on other social media platforms, the series reveals the fundamental impotence of true crime television to ever fully contain or even address the media situation it typically allegorises, even or especially if the crimes involve eventually turn out to be solved. That scenario is even more exacerbated in the second season, which is even more fixated with a series of social media traces that don’t quite link up. In this case, the crime is not burglary, but food poisoning, as the students of an elite West Coast high school find themselves hit by a food poisoner who describes himself or herself as the Turd Burglar, and whose crime is designed to enjoy a much more sustained, shaming and intrusive afterlife on social media.
In essence, the Turd Burglar places laxative in the school lemonade dispenser, causing the vast majority of students – and some staff – to defecate in the hallways, classrooms and cafeteria itself, since the laxative operates quickly enough that very few of them are able to make their way to the bathroom. During this time, the Turd Burglar manages to record footage of his or her victims, before uploading and sharing that footage on an Instagram account created for the purpose, whose avatar is a poop emoji. Over the next couple of weeks, the Turd Burglar executes a number of similar pranks – all involving faeces – before the school identifies one Kevin McClain as the perpetrator and expels him. Once he is placed on house arrest, his best friend makes contact with Kevin and Sam, the documentarians of the first season, who come to stay in the area for a couple of weeks in order to exonerate him. The stage is set for a remarkably deft deconstruction of high school as a class system, as series creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda take us through the various social strata that constitute high school social dynamics, often recalling American Crime Story in their willingness to adopt a counter-intuitive outlook on where genuine power and privilege lie.
As we move from the school’s star basketballer to the daughter of the school’s trustees, this second season builds one of the most complex social media forensic narratives I have seen – much more ambitious than the first season, for all its originality. In particular, Perrault and Yacenda use the SmartPhone as a forensic space in a particularly brilliant way, with an iOS update, for example, playing a crucial role in differentiating suspects from one another. Yet the brilliance of the series is that this forensic dimension doesn’t just play out on SmartPhones, but at the intersections between SmartPhones and “real” time and space. Nailing that interplay is one of the hardest things to do in contemporary film and television, and American Vandal is prescient that a high school setting is one of the best ways to attempt it. On the one hand, high school tends to be where attachment to social media is most primal and formative, but on the other hand high school forces students to be present in actual time and space to a greater extent than even most workplaces – a contradiction that drives American Vandal’s forensic fixation with the spaces around SmartPhones, and the spaces through which SmartPhones travel on their way to mediating that space in turn.
That all builds to an extraordinary conclusion that encapsulates both the digital and material fact of the SmartPhone in one brilliant twist. First, it emerges that the perpetrator of the Turd Burglar scheme was Grayson, a student who was expelled from the school a few years before, and who now works at a SmartPhone kiosk at a local mall. Early in the series, Kevin and Sam visit Grayson at work, where they observe that SmartPhone kiosks are still the one place where people can physically access all your images and files, in the manner of an old-fashioned photo booth. Yet Grayson turns out to have used his physical, material access to SmartPhones to emphasise the aspects of SmartPhone use that defy time and space, as it turns out he has gathered images from a client’s phone, and then used these images to tap into the deepest secrets and fears of his ex-classmates, enjoining them to commit the Turd Burglar pranks to avoid being exposed and shamed on social media at large. In that sense, the Turd Burglar, as an entity, is both this individual character and the collective actions that his victims did under duress. At the same time, however, the Turd Burglar is neither Grayson or his victims, but instead a figure for this strange nexus at which the materiality of the SmartPhone is used for an entirely ficyitious identity – a social media vulnerability bot – whose position as a fantasmatic horizon for every character’s fears and anxieties would nevertheless have been impossible Grayson’s material, physical access to the SmartPhone.
That displacement of the Turd Burglar from any one source of agency turns the poop emoji – his calling card – into the emblem of this social situation in which it is impossible to fully navigate or reduce the space around SmartPhones to any one consistent meaning or tonality. Instead, American Vandal opts for a scatological realism that has led some critics to dismiss it as puerile, especially those who have only watched the first couple of episodes of each season, but which by the end of the second season has been cemented as the only plausible register to articulate the space opened up by the Turd Burglar (or the space that is the Turd Burglar). As a proprioceptive extension, an entity that is not quite of the body, but not quite distinct from the body either, the SmartPhone is inextricable from the fear of bodily exposure, even as it promises to assuage that fear at the same moment by disembodying experience beyond the point at which shame becomes tenable. American Vandal lives and breathes in that space, evoking a social media landscape in which forensic scrutiny isn’t specific or particular to true crime, but a form of self-monitoring that is necessary to manage the inherent capacity of the SmartPhone to draw out the ridiculous, abject and shameful elements of embodiment itself – and it is in the revelation that these two experiences are the same experience that the brilliance of this second season lies, with the result the case doesn’t really end, but is just absorbed back into a heightened scatological normality that deserves a third season, even if Netflix has parted ways with it.
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