Let’s talk about DeMarcus Tillman, the most fascinating new character introduced in the second, feces-filled season of American Vandal, and a person The Ringer has already written about:
Meta! It’s not hard to understand the allure of Tillman (played by a pitch-perfect Melvin Gregg). Even before St. Bernardine High came into the spotlight after the heinous crimes of the Turd Burglar, Tillman had the school in the news because, well, he is exceptionally good at basketball.
For as much praise as American Vandal justly receives for its satirical spin on the true crime genre—something it remains committed to in a second season that evokes the religious, institutional cover-up that surrounded Netflix’s The Keepers—introducing Tillman as a potential suspect in the Turd Burglar mystery makes it clear that the show is also adept at understanding the hilarious world of Basketball Twitter. To begin the third episode, we get a Ball Is Life–esque mixtape of Tillman torching other high schoolers with swagger and even a signature gimmick; when he’s rolling, he pantomimes playing a violin for the haters. One minute he’s joking around with the refs; the next he’s nailing a step-back buzzer beater. Tillman is deified in the same way other, real-life high school prospects of years past have been in the internet age. His profile (and in many ways, his future) depends on clout, which can be raised only through hype on YouTube and Twitter.
Showing Tillman go off and boast about his affinity for pulling pranks (he goes by the nickname “Mr. Untouchable” on the court) is intended to make the viewer think two things: that Tillman is the school’s prototypical big man on campus and that he could very well be the Turd Burglar. But rather than paint Tillman as a stereotypical jock and move on to other subjects at the school, American Vandal unfolds its fecal mystery alongside a deconstruction of Tillman’s life as an alienated teen, the institutional problems of St. Bernardine’s athletics treatment, and how he’s susceptible to the real culprit, who is pulling the strings behind a literal screen.
Through Tillman, Vandal emphasizes just how much St. Bernardine prioritizes its athletics—and its most talented athletes—over education. What draws suspicion from mockumentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) is the special treatment and campus access Tillman receives; as a star athlete, he’s allowed entry into the places the Turd Burglar needed to be to lace the school’s lemonade with laxatives and fill a classroom piñata with poop. As Peter and Sam posit, the school would rather pin the Turd Burglar’s crimes on oddball Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) than on its prized basketball prospect, despite compelling evidence that Kevin is innocent. On a much smaller (and fictional) scale, the plot surrounding Tillman brings to mind some of the most damning collegiate cases of institutional cover-ups for athletes at places like Baylor University, Florida State University, and the University of Richmond. Expectations of integrity are rendered naive and unrealistic in the face of football or basketball championships.
However, just as Tillman comes to the fore as a prime suspect, the downside of having the biggest spotlight on campus becomes apparent: Everyone sees him more as an opportunity—for fame, for financial gain—than as an actual human being. English teacher Mrs. Montgomery says it best, in an unknowing self-own while describing her aspirations of being Tillman’s white savior: “I think of myself as being Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. I feel so connected to my students, the same way she was connected to … the black kid in that movie.”
The cold comfort of being a probable future NBA lottery pick doesn’t make up for the fact that everybody, even Tillman’s father and his best friend on the team, Lou, is trying to leverage his stature for their own benefit. (Lou, for instance, is trying to dictate where DeMarcus should play college ball before making the jump to the NBA.) That’s why it makes perfect sense for Tillman to fall victim to the actual Turd Burglar, an expelled former student named Grayson Wentz, who catfished a handful of students and a teacher by posing on Instagram as an attractive teen named Brooke and forced them to commit the crimes at his behest. Tillman having the biggest profile at the high school also means he has the biggest target on his back.
The Turd Burglar’s climatic “dump” at St. Bernadine is a data dump, sending compromising photos of all his victims—including a series of Tillman’s dick pics—into the digital sphere. Because Tillman is the huge basketball star, his revealing photos gain the most attention. Sports talking heads like Jim Rome question how the incident will hurt his future draft prospects; the fictional Ringer article compares the situation to Manti Te’o’s catfishing scandal. But in Tillman’s own words, he felt that chatting with “Brooke” over Instagram DMs was the closest thing he had to a real human connection in his life as a basketball prodigy. “People don’t understand that when you’re in a position where everybody’s looking at you, nobody’s honest with you,” he tells Peter and Sam in the aftermath. “It’s hard to know what’s real when nobody’s real with you. … All of those people, they might act like they love me—and sometimes it feel like they do—it just don’t feel real. It don’t feel genuine.”
Tillman’s scenario is one that might be difficult to relate to—how many of us have highlight reels that get hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube?—but the profound alienation he feels is one of many empathetic turns American Vandal takes in its second season. The show forces the viewer to connect with eccentric dorks and jocks alike and to understand the way that teens often use their digital avatars as masks. The performative nature of social media, the way everyone projects a perfect life for themselves, is in turn what makes people vulnerable to victimization; it’s how the Turd Burglar takes advantage of people. Tillman’s Instagram is just a series of artificial flexes and on-court moves, but the displays of confidence fail to compensate for the fact he feels isolated and constantly subject to the whims of people trying to use his clout for themselves. It’s no surprise that when “Brooke” reached out to nearly everyone at the school, Tillman was one of the few people who responded. He just wanted someone to connect with him as a human being, not as an athlete.
American Vandal might have dialed down a bit of its humor in its second season, but its evolving treatise on social media illuminates all corners of high school life. As its exploration of DeMarcus Tillman illustrates, otherworldly athletes are people too.