We may never exactly know why Netflix decided to cancel its Peabody Award winning comedy “American Vandal” after two critically lauded seasons. Without Netflix confirming any solid ratings numbers, it’s impossible to know if enough people watched; the best bet is that Netflix simply didn’t feel like gambling anymore on a show owned by CBS Television Studios instead of one wholly its own. But the truth is that no matter the reasoning was behind the decision, it truly is a shortsighted shame.
What looked like silly parody mysteries about teens spray-painting penises and pranking schools as “The Turd Burglar” were….OK, they were very silly, and happily so. But both seasons were also sharp, insightful portrayals of what it means to be a teenager today dealing with the vast reaches of the internet and tangled webs of social media. What’s more, it did so by swapping TV’s more typical “kids and their phones!” condescension for curiosity and empathy about why and what it means for kids (and all of us) to have technology be such an intrinsic part of everyday life. In both seasons, “American Vandal” was a Trojan horse of a show that dug into teenaged and online lives with more detail and depth than any other TV series, period.
Most shows are content to keep their depictions of technology either minimal (e.g. texts popping up onscreen, someone discovering a daunting new dating app), or panicked and hyperbolic (e.g. terrible moments going viral, cybercrime destroying lives). Some barely recognize that the internet exists at all. Precious few are willing to incorporate the way so many of us live online and how it ripples into the “real” world. With new sites and apps and social mores changing by the second, it’s proven hard for the entertainment industry to keep up in a believable way, making so much of the output feel a little dated, or at least out of step. But “American Vandal,” both purposefully and instinctively, found a way to change that by acknowledging a simple fact: it was portraying the lives of teens circa 2017, and in order to do that, it had to let its characters do more than text.
In its first season, the show had its central detectives ferret out clues via scraps of Snapchat videos taken at a party and a particularly revealing Twitch livestream. In a meta twist, their documentary started to go viral, but not for the splashy sake of it. Instead, “American Vandal” sifted through the often devastating fallout of viral fame. The documentarians’ egos inflated with their success, while their subjects realized both how they came off onscreen and the disconnect between how viewers saw them and the reality of their lives.
The second season, which revolved around a prankster terrorizing a Catholic private school, significantly amped up the show’s social media presence in equally hilarious and revealing ways. The so-called “Turd Burglar” drops cryptic hints and taunts on Instagram, the better to reach as many of the students as possible. A crucial break in the case comes when the documentarians realize that the prankster had that brief iPhone glitch that caused lowercase i’s to turn into capital A’s with question marks, meaning no one without an iPhone or that glitch could have made those posts. (The main suspect is an insecure snob who declares that his Android is “the superior machine”). At one point, the intrepid teen detectives realize that unlike another suspect, the Turd Burglar puts periods after emojis, which they agree through mutual horror makes him sound “like, serial killer weird.”
But where “American Vandal’s” second season truly shines in this area is in its very last moments. (Spoilers, obviously, to come!) In the finale, the documentarians figure out that the Turd Burglar is an angry former student who got suspended for harassing people on Twitter and now works at a phone repair kiosk in the local mall. Deeply bitter and undeniably backed into a corner, the Turd Burglar releases information he gathered from several students (and one teacher) by catfishing them with pictures and video of a girl he stole from a customer’s phone.
This mass doxxing — appropriately called “The Dump” — is a true gut-punch of a plot twist. It shows several characters at their most vulnerable and humiliated, revealing the disparity between their loneliness and their online selves, meticulously crafted to fit personas they feel like they need to live up to. As the closing voiceover concedes, “we do all create versions of ourselves to appear to be the appear to be the curators of our stories, to appear to be in the driver’s seat of our own lives.”
But “American Vandal” doesn’t ultimately chide the teens — or anyone — for buying into the idea that they can make themselves look different online than they feel. Instead, it points out that this is the first generation “that gets to live twice,” and how that possibility is both daunting and exhilarating. Getting to decide how you appear to the world, how you want to be, is one of the oldest instincts there is; the internet just amplifies it. As the voiceover concludes: “We’re not the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed.”
Maybe this definitive conclusion isn’t reminiscent of everyone’s experience living in an increasingly digital world. But given how many shows prefer to use this generation as an easy punching bag, “American Vandal’s” portrayal was bar none one of the most thoughtful and perceptive portrayals TV’s had to date. Unless another platform scoops it up (as well one should), its singular insight will be dearly missed.
American Vandal is currently available to stream on Netflix.