“Who drew the dicks?”
That’s the question on everyone’s mind surrounding Netflix’s original new series, American Vandal, which premiered on Sept. 15. The eight-episode mockumentary riffs on nearly every trope of true crime documentaries to craft a clever and funny “whodunit.” Despite the comedic premise of the show, there are real journalistic ethics up for debate, so fellow Medill students should pay attention.
The mystery revolves around Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a high school senior who is expelled for allegedly spray painting 27 penises on teachers’ cars. High school broadcast student Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) launches an investigation to determine whether Dylan is the culprit or the scapegoat to a larger conspiracy within the school. As he uncovers evidence, debunks false alibis and digs deeper into the mystery, the story unfolds in surprising ways.
American Vandal is more than one extended dick joke, even though there are plenty of phallic references to go around. (Look no further than the episode titles for a laugh.) Jimmy Tatro is the standout as Dylan, who transcends the label of senior burnout over the arc of the show, at first excited to be expelled but eventually becoming more concerned with the consequences. Also, fellow Medill students may learn a thing or two about objective reporting while watching the mockumentary, and fans of Serial and Making a Murderer will immediately notice their influence on the show.
Serial listeners will notice that Peter and Dylan’s relationship as reporter and suspect mirrors Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed’s from the groundbreaking podcast. Peter has to create a level of trust between him and Dylan just like Sarah had to do with Adnan in order to determine the truth. Dylan acts as the main character in the mystery, but also as an unreliable source.
When Koenig spoke at Northwestern in the spring of 2016, she discussed this dynamic of two-way trust. According to Koenig, reporters have to use suspects to make an interesting documentary, but the suspects also use the reporters to paint themselves in a good light and get their stories to the public. By getting so close to to Dylan, Peter becomes biased in his reporting and overlooks some details. This creates a more entertaining show, but it’s dangerous for objective reporting in the real world.
As a Medill student, seeing the process of how this fake documentary is created in the show is just as fascinating as the mystery itself. Peter tries to stay objective in his reporting of the story, but challenges arise as he has to interview his friends, peers and teachers. Secrets from people’s personal lives don’t remain secrets after the documentary goes viral throughout the high school in episode 5, and Peter doesn’t have as many friends by the time the reporting finishes. He releases a viral hit, but at what cost?
Most student reporters haven’t broken a story as big as what Peter does in American Vandal, but it’s all possible. It made me wonder if a Medill student covered this story, what would they change? Would a Medill student include footage of high schoolers smoking weed and details from students’ personal lives, like who they’ve hooked up with and if a teacher was dating their parent? Some of what Peter put in the documentary was ethically questionable, but it still made a viral hit. The series is a good lesson in objectivity while reporting and determining what personal details are pertinent to the overall story.
American Vandal is worthy of a watch from all kinds of viewers, from the dick-drawing class clowns to the wannabe-Ken-Burns documentarians. With only eight episodes running at roughly 30 minutes each, there’s no reason to miss out on this next big Netflix series.