There is an epidemic in misleading teen television. Far too often, teenagers are portrayed as sex gods with absolutely no acne or awkward behavior, as star athletes who never play a single game besides the big championship, and academic geniuses who never do homework, yet still manage to solve murders and expose municipal government conspiracies. Youth are deprived of accurate representation of themselves, and the experiences that teens go through during high school are constantly undermined and invalidated by the creative media we consume. Teenagers are often portrayed as narcissistic, ignorant, and attached by the corneas to their phones, and while most media do it insultingly, American Vandal shows these sometimes-true stereotypes in a whole new light.
The show is fictional, but if you didn’t know that before watching the first season, it would be difficult to ever figure out. It is structured like a true crime docuseries (not unlike another Netflix Original Making a Murderer) and focuses on the conspiracy behind truly ridiculous school-based crimes. The first season chronicles the senior year of Dylan Maxwell, an infamous whiteboard dick drawer accused of vandalising teachers’ cars and causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. The documentarians attempt to expose an administration-wide conspiracy and prove Maxwell innocent, and in the process showcase a struggle that many teens find too real: how to establish a reputation worth having, without getting caught in a web of rumours and social faux-pas. The second season, which recently premiered on September 14, features a series of crimes committed by the online entity “The Turd Burglar,” and like the first season, details the attempt to clear somebody’s name and find the real culprit. Over the course of eight episodes, the second season of American Vandal perfectly captures how teens use social media and, while potentially dangerous, how it is not as harmful as many adults and critics are led to believe.
The show is so accurate it simultaneously hurts and comforts to watch, and it is easy to believe that it is really created by two teenage documentarians who went viral and got an epic production deal with Netflix. In fact, it is harder to believe that the show could ever be made by people who have not been teenagers since the 1990’s because it does not mock the high school experience – rather, American Vandal features its complexity and ridiculousness. Characters are never reduced to stereotypes but are not overly dramatic and unrealistic either. Instead, they are simply teenagers: emotional, lighthearted, intense, a little goofy, and entirely human. The show makes a point of never invalidating anything, instead opting to acknowledge how hard high school can be. The characters in the show do not dramatically fall in love, nor do they get into intense fist fights, and they never unleash nuggets of poetic wisdom on the unsuspecting viewer. They are stunningly real, despite the antagonist of the show constantly proclaiming that they are fake.
Adolescent use of social media has been under scrutiny since the age of Myspace and has only gotten worse as it has become more widespread. Many yearn for an age without cellphones and Instagram, without the pressure of constantly looking perfect and pretending to have the ideal life. Many teen movies of the past ten years feature young people encountering problems with social media and only ever finding happiness when they turn off their phones (literally and figuratively), but that message rings hollow. We like our curated profiles, our constant connection with our friends, and being able to pretend that we are so much cooler than we feel. While there is a danger to social media, it does not lie in its constant consumption – rather, the struggle is in the assumed lack of privacy we experience. The concluding monologue of American Vandal puts it perfectly: “We’re not the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed. We’re living in a constant state of feedback and judgment. So maybe the masks are a tool to survive the time. Maybe they provide a thin layer of protection. A place to grow, discover, reinvent. The important part is having people who know you without the mask and being happy with who you are beneath it.”
American Vandal understands what it is like being a teenager. It can strike the heart of youth issues without ever being insensitive or unreal, and never makes light of experiences that are often invalidated. It is the benchmark for what teen shows should be, and weaves incredible stories of love and persistence. But more importantly, it asks the question: “Who did the Brownout?”
Photo credit to The Muse.