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The Darker, Digital Side of ‘American Vandal’

The second season of Netflix’s mockuseries has a message for those grateful to have grown up without social media: You’re not nearly grateful enough

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Spoilers abound! This post contains spoilers for Season 2 of American Vandal. A lot of them! Please stop reading now if you don’t want to know who did the poop.

“DeMarcus Tillman: Why This Catfish Scandal is Different,” a colleague of mine wrote not so long ago. “But this is no Birdman,” my colleague continued. “This is no Manti Teo.”

Which colleague, you ask? Not so long ago when? And don’t you mean Te’o? Well, my friends, I don’t know, but I have—gasp—receipts. And also a blurry dick pic; sorry about that:

Netflix

The first season of American Vandal, Netflix’s What-If-Serial-But-Teenagers mockumentary series, investigated a spate of dicks mysteriously drawn on cars in a high school parking lot. Season 2, which premiered Friday, aims both higher—a more complicated crime with a more complicated resolution—and lower: Where once there were dicks, there is now poop. The season kicks off in the aftermath of what the students of the ritzy, make-believe St. Bernardine Catholic school call “the Brownout”: a mass soiling of plaid skirts and khaki pants prompted when someone (but who?) laced the cafeteria lemonade with a laxative (but why?). As in Season 1, intrepid teen investigators Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) set about trying to liberate an apparently wrongly accused suspect and identify the real perpetrator—a specter who, this time around, has dubbed themselves “the Turd Burglar.”

Things spiral, as poop in motion tends to, leading to the purported Ringer coverage. (Our resident copy chief, Craig Gaines, had this to say of Vandal’s attempt at house style: “The second graf does a good job of describing the broader impact (‘traumatized dozens of innocent students and teachers’), and my interest is—regrettably—piqued by the phrase ‘fecal crimes.’ ... Regardless of the flashes of showiness in the first two grafs, I have to say that when you can use the phrase ‘putting poop into a piñata’ as your hammer, you stand a pretty good chance of hooking your reader. And that’s what The Ringer is all about!”)

The thing to know about Season 2 of American Vandal is that it is, against all odds, a pretty dark ride. The crimes escalate from the vandalism and E. coli dispersal at the outset to, among other things, the mass dissemination of child pornography and the systematic blackmail of a group of especially vulnerable teenagers. (In the end, the culprit is sentenced to two years in prison; one thinks that in the real world the sentence would have been … more.) There is predatory behavior by a teacher; there is a disaffected young man quietly seething and plotting against classmates that he feels wronged him, spurred on by radicalization on 4chan. It is, if you’ll forgive the pun, some real shit, which feels a little at odds with plot points that turn on phrases like “crap calendar” and “#chlamyds.”

Darker still is what the show has to say about social media. If you’re of a certain age, you may have thought from time to time that you’re grateful to have largely grown up by the time cellphones and social media started permeating our daily lives. If that’s you, American Vandal has a message: You are not nearly grateful enough. The students of St. Bernie’s flit among Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and YouTube, with adults seemingly helpless to slow or stop any of it. Embarrassing grade-school incidents that might in more innocent days have simply been whispered stories are instead memorialized in endlessly looping Snap Stories (Instagram appears to have not yet completed its coup in this world); one suspect is allegedly set off by a Facebook “On This Day” popup. The poop plot gets serious when things go online, which is almost immediately: The lemonade-tainting mastermind sets up an Instagram account, @theturdburglar, and starts tagging students in videos of them messily relieving themselves. “He got, like, 800 followers in one day,” one student says admiringly.

Admiration, after all, has everything to do with it: There’s the popular girl turned social pariah after her immaculately curated Instagram life is publicly outed as fiction, the kid willing to play the part of a real-life meme because to stop would mean admitting he was just being bullied, the star athlete whose vaunted standing is shaken when a teacher publishes some of his godawful—and most decidedly off-brand—poetry. (I’m serious about the spoilers; get thee to Netflix if you don’t want to know how this ends yet.) There’s a villain in American Vandal, but there aren’t really bystanders—at St. Bernardine or, one supposes, on social media generally. Our bad guy is set up for a fall by dozens of his classmates smashing like and retweet on bawdy messages he left on other people’s accounts in the school’s computer lab; after he’s expelled, he notes that no one came to his defense online. It is, in fact, an otherwise anonymous classmate’s passive social media judgment—that the rogue tweeter was “a piece of shit”—that may have sparked all the trouble afterward. “I’m the only one not hiding on Instagram fishing for likes,” a pre–turd-burgling Turd Burglar rants to a front-facing camera, “and I’m a fucking piece of shit?” Never, ever meet anyone in Temecula. Better yet, never even suggest it.

Yes, this is a social media story. We learn at the end that the poop-related crimes were mostly propagated by students who sent sexual pictures and videos of themselves to a person they believed was a charming young woman who was interested in them (and apparently a student at another high school, i.e., a minor). That young woman, who wooed her targets via strings of Instagram likes and fawning DMs, was in fact the (male) expellee—now an employee of a local cellphone repair shop, a status he’d used to steal hundreds of the real young woman’s photos and videos, many of them sexual in nature, and, as a result, her identity. She—that is, really he—threatens the students he’s developed digital relationships with: If they won’t aid the cause of the Turd Burglar, he’ll share the pictures they sent him. But worse than that: He’ll share the receipts; all the DMs and texts where these extremely teenage kids complained about their classmates and friends. They did what he asked, of course.

Here, in ascending order, are the worst things that can happen to a high school student, according to American Vandal: (4) poop your pants in front of your classmates, (3) look like you pooped your pants in front of your classmates, leading to a mean nickname and years of bullying, (2) have your DMs go public, and (1) be lonely. The sexts and the catfishing—yeah, that’s pretty bad. But it’s got nothing on getting dumped, or feeling like you don’t have enough in common with your classmates to make any real friends, or having nobody show up to your birthday party.

So if there’s a moral, what is it? Be wary of Instagram thirst traps, I suppose. Be kind to the weirdos in our midst; we’re all one viral screenshot from being laughed out of town. And definitely don’t drink the lemonade right after a fire drill.