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American Vandal is the future of documentaries, not just dick jokes

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Its best tool is also its most ordinary one

The dick joke-fueled mockumentary American Vandal is a refreshing take on true crime. It plays off the frenzy around real-life murder mystery series like Making a Murderer, Serial, and The Jinx, with a more lighthearted version of the genre. More importantly, it envisions the documentary process in more modern terms, creating a future where platforms like Snapchat or Instagram become tools of record for would-be detectives.

Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault’s spoof focuses on fictional high school students, as the team was heavily inspired by interviews with real-life teenagers. The Netflix series follows an ambitious filmmaker named Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), who’s investigating an incident where 27 faculty cars were spray-painted with cartoon penises. A troublemaker named Dylan (Jimmy Tatro) is blamed for the vandalism and expelled, but Peter begins unravelling the school’s case against him.

Much of the show’s humor comes from the intensity its stars bring to examining the evidence, honing in on the vandal’s artistic tastes, student vendettas, and gossip. The show uses a lot of faux found footage culled from students’ Snapchats, Instagram feeds, and other social media presences. Yacenda says in order to create and understand how high schoolers use these platforms, they went straight to the source. “The common threads were that high school kids don't use Facebook much,” he tells The Verge. “Certainly not with their own friends. They use a lot of Snapchat. Instagram is the main one. But I guess you learn that kids have their public Instagram, and then they'll have a private Instagram for just their close friends, so they can post memes or whatever.”

In the show, Snapchat videos and Instagram Boomerangs are used as alibis, evidence, or a way for junior documentarians to create timelines and track conversations. The team’s hard-and-fast rule was that all these videos needed to be “as authentic as possible,” Yacenda says. “We always wanted to have logic of why a high-school kid would be shooting a video in the first place. Maybe it's somebody taking a selfie in the foreground, and something's happening in the background.”

Part of keeping this illusion up included keeping real platforms, rather than creating fake ones. “I think that takes you totally out of the world, if we were creating our own social media apps for the sake of the show,” Perrault says. That meant occasionally blurring out parts of an interface, or shooting some videos on an actual cellphone. This was especially true in the case of the show’s big house party, a complicated event that tracks several of the show’s key characters. “We wanted a ton of B-roll from the iPhone,” Perrault says. “And so we would clear the crew out of the room and basically play out the party as it naturally would go, and just give separate kids iPhones to get footage from that.”

The show’s stars are believable due to how they use their phones to naturally document their lives, but credit needs to be given to Perrault and Yacenda’s writing as well. Where many TV teens sound too scripted or too pop culture savvy, American Vandal presents a fresh take on kids, because they’re just as awkward and honest as they are in reality. Perrault and Yacenda wanted to avoid creating caricatures. “[TV shows] are trying to make a conversation funny, or they're trying to make it quick and punchy,” Yacenda says. “Where, because ours is an investigation, we can really just let the kids talk like kids talk, which isn't the best dialogue for a typical TV show.”

This also makes the characters more relatable, even to an older audience. "Our lives are so digital, too,” Yacenda says. “You could just project all of the insecurities and all of the desire for likes that we have. I think it's just magnified tenfold by the younger generation.”

American Vandal’s creators are already gearing up for a second season, but they declined to give more details. “We have an idea for a story that we really like that will be a new location and a new crime,” Perrault says. "There are plenty of new docs that have emerged since we began season 1, and then there's some classics that we can draw on.” At the very least, the second season will probably put the dick jokes to rest.