Old fashion milk bottle
Just as disaster movies begat Airplane and horror films spawned Scary Movie, the recent onslaught of true-crime docudramas inevitably led to American Vandal. The Netflix spoof series, which premiered in September 2017, followed fictitious filmmakers Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) as they pursued the anonymous, genitalia-drawing vandal haunting an otherwise unremarkable California high school. Superficially a vehicle for sophomoric jokes, the series was actually a clever deconstruction of both the reality genre and the increasing influence of social media.
Critically and commercially successful, American Vandal got a quick season-two renewal. Set to premiere September 14—just a couple of weeks after it will compete for this year's Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special—Peter and Sam are set to investigate a phantom pooper terrorizing a Catholic high school. In the meantime, check out some facts about American Vandal’s origins, its approach to fake true crime, and why series co-creator Dan Perrault aimed for something more than “a four-hour dck joke.”
1. THE CREATORS GOT THEIR START LAMPOONING MICHAEL JORDAN.
Before breaking out with American Vandal, co-creators Perrault and Tony Yacenda garnered some attention for a 2013 parody of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. The two produced a five-minute “documentary” covering the climactic basketball game in 1996’s Space Jam that featured actual NBA analysts discussing Michael Jordan’s pivotal performance alongside Bugs Bunny. In 2015, they released a similar retrospective for the climactic fight of 1985's Rocky IV between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago.
2. THERE WAS A PROBLEM WITH THE PEE HOLE.
With produced footage under their belt, Perrault and Yacenda began to shop their idea for a documentary satire about spray-painted penises to several different outlets in early 2016. While a few cable networks were interested, Perrault told Vanity Fair that at least one executive expressed concern about how they would depict the phallic graffiti. “I don’t know if we could have done penises the same way,” he said. “I’m not going to name the cable network—but we were told that, like, the pee hole, for example, is an issue on cable.” Netflix had no such reservations.
3. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY. (REALLY.)
While the premise of American Vandal is fictional, it did have some unintentional echoes in real life. Showrunner Dan Lagana, who was brought onboard to help Perrault and Yacenda flesh out the show’s episodic format, told Vulture that his stepson was once accused of a similar, penis-related crime.
“I have a 17-year-old stepson, and when he was a freshman in high school he was accused of vandalizing an art project at school with a large phallic image,” Lagana said. “He didn’t do it but he got suspended for it. I remember sitting in the principal’s office, just boiling with fury over the injustice of it, and there was no way to prove his innocence. I told the creators that story and from that day forward we were a three-headed monster, which I was very, very excited about.”
4. NOT ALL OF IT WAS SCRIPTED.
While American Vandal has the visceral feel of a documentary series, it’s comprised of actors delivering scripted lines in a way that sounds spontaneous. But for scenes involving Peter Maldonado, the interrogator-slash-filmmaker, director Yacenda had actor Tyler Alvarez conduct free-flowing interviews with cast mates and reference his own in-character notes. That layer of realism helped the series “feel like this was a real case and we were working with real people,” according to Perrault.
5. IT’S NOT JUST SPOOFING SERIAL AND MAKING A MURDERER.
Perrault and Yacenda are often linked to the true-crime podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer as the inspirations for American Vandal. But their documentary tastes run deeper. According to an Entertainment Weekly interview with the pair, the show also drew from the HBO series The Jinx—about the wealthy, potentially very murderous Robert Durst—as well as Errol Morris’s acclaimed 1988 feature documentary The Thin Blue Line and The Central Park Five.
6. “DYLAN” FELT BAD ABOUT FARTING ON BABIES.
The star of American Vandal’s first season is undoubtedly Jimmy Tatro, a YouTube content star who received glowing reviews for his portrayal of slack-jawed delinquent Dylan. (It’s Dylan who is accused, perhaps wrongfully, of drawing penises on 27 school faculty members' cars.) For one scene, Tatro mimed farting in the direction of small children to demonstrate Dylan’s web series on “baby farting,” a prank spree that sets him up as a viable suspect. “I didn’t actually fart on the kids,” Tatro told GQ. “But they just had no context for what was going on. Like, I don’t know what they knew about what they were shooting, but I would imagine it wasn’t enough for them to understand what was happening. So it was just like, mom and kid walking, and I just ran up and stuck my butt in the kid’s face and ran off, and the kid was probably extremely confused.”
7. NANA’S PARTY WAS ALSO A REAL THING.
To create a sequence full of social media footage that eventually pays off for Peter and Sam, the series' producers orchestrated a faux-high school party at “Nana’s,” the host’s grandmother’s house. The idea stemmed from staff writer Seth Cohen, who once attended a party in a “Nana” residence circa 1999. Cohen had videotape of the party, which he showed to the entire writing staff.
8. IT WAS THE MOST BINGED NETFLIX SHOW OF 2017.
Hooking people on its mystery was apparently not a problem for American Vandal. In December 2017, Netflix released a top 10 list of the most-binged programs on the streaming service, which they defined as series that were viewed for more than two hours a daily. American Vandal topped the list, beating other shows like 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale, and The Keepers.
9. IT’S OFFICIALLY AN ANTHOLOGY SERIES.
When the show caught on and Perrault and Yacenda agreed to a second season, their initial idea was to explore Dylan’s ongoing story of being labeled a penis-painter. Instead, Peter and Sam will be investigating a totally new case involving feces. In the context of American Vandal, they’re now celebrated true-crime documentarians, and the two will likely become the only recurring characters on the series.
10. IT WON A PEABODY AWARD.
Never in the history of the Peabody Awards—which celebrates achievement in television and other mass media—has an honor gone to a show about badly-drawn penises. In April 2018, the prestigious prize was given to American Vandal, with members acknowledging the show’s deeper ambitions to explore adolescence, social constructions, and technology. “The show’s careful realism and straight-faced performances are part of its comedy,” the organization wrote, “but they are also the foundation for a climax that finds the tragedy in Dylan’s infamy and the injustices behind the crime itself, foregrounding our complicity in the series’ unexpectedly profound lesson of what is unearthed when a quest for the truth loses its way.”