The first season of Netflix’s American Vandal had absolutely no right to be as good as it was. A mockumentary—styled on binge-worthy true crime series like Making a Murderer and Serial—delving into the case of 27 dicks spray-painted on cars belonging to the faculty of the fictional Hanover High School, it could have so, so easily devolved into a simple comedy where the word “dicks” is both the joke and the punchline for eight straight episodes. Instead, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda used their central mystery—”Who drew the dicks”—as their way into exploring the horrifying ups and downs of being a teenager, during the four years when labels like Class President, Stoner, Jock, or Dick-Drawing Menace stick more permanently than spray-paint on the side of a teacher’s Hyundai Sonata. So when season 2 swapped dicks for turds and asked, “What if the motive is just, ‘Poop is funny’?” you almost had to wonder if Perrault and Yacenda would dive as deep. Poop is funny. This is a hard fact. I’m relatively sure it’s in the Constitution. What if, in fact, the motive for a second season is that hearing high schoolers repeatedly saying the word “poop” is just really, really funny?
Well, worriers, unclench. American Vandal season 2 is not only more ambitious than its predecessor but shockingly darker and more inventive. It’s a season of TV that proves that poop is funny, but it is infinitely more interesting to actually give a shit.
The central mystery of season two is this: On a seemingly random Chicken Finger Monday in the cafeteria of St. Bernadine High, a jug of spiked lemonade caused a majority of the student body to shit themselves. Everywhere. All over the school. Netflix spared no expense in poo spray, believe you me. The incident came to be known as the Brown Out, and it was followed by two more poo-related crimes: Pep rally t-shirt guns filled with cat shit and a poo-filled pinata shaped like the head of Kurt Vonnegut. An anonymous Instagram account named The Turdburglar taunts the school while hinting at more fecal felonies to come.
Number one suspect—and the central figure of season 2’s “documentary”—is Kevin McClain, played by Travis Tope. Tope never quite reaches the height of Dylan Maxwell’s tender oafishness—Jimmy Tatro straight up deserved an Emmy nod—but does put in a quietly heartbreaking performance. Kevin is your typical well-liked but largely-ignored misfit. He’s in an experimental band named The Horsehead collective. He has a vlog where he reviews teas. He wears a wool cap. And, damningly in the eyes of the investigation, a 4th-grade playground incident earned Kevin the lifelong nickname of “Shit Stain McClain.” Kevin admits to the crimes, but then—in a development uncomfortably close to Brendan Dassey in Making a Murderer—claims his confession was coerced under duress.
American Vandal borrowing from Making a Murderer‘s real-life forced, underage interrogation—some of the most genuinely unnerving footage you’ll ever see—is just one of the numerous ways this second season enters into some pretty dark territory. The Brown Out itself, captured through security footage, cell phone cameras, and Snapchat videos, is framed a little too closely to a school shooting to be comfortable. I know, I know, this is the poop show. But in an effort to contrast a terrifying tone with the objectively silly sight of students fleeing to the bathroom, the filmmakers leaned too far into the terrifying side of things, which isn’t as funny as it is deeply uncomfortable.
But mostly, this darkness works well in tandem with the absurdity of the Turdburglar case. Once again, a string-and-corkboard who-dun-it is just the vehicle for Perrault and Yacenda to delve into some depressingly timely themes. Cyber-bullying. Catfishing. Even the radicalization of young men on message boards like 4Chan is touched on and, more amazingly, makes perfect sense in the overall search for The Turdburglar.
The one thing missing from season 2 is any worthwhile storyline for our hosts behind the camera, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund (Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck are the only returning cast members). Some stand-out supporting characters do emerge—Melvin Gregg is consistently laugh-out-loud funny through all 8 episodes as all-star basketball player and Turburglar suspect Demarcus—but Peter and Sam are mostly there to shepherd the doc along. In season one, they both broke the golden documentary rules; they fought with each other, with their suspects, questioned the nature of the movie itself. But that was also kind of the point; season one never definitively named a Dick Drawer as a way to comment on the absurdity of any docu-series—like Making a Murderer, like Serial, like Evil Genius—with all their unspoken biases, ever claiming to know the truth.
And that’s another way season 2 differentiates itself; without spoiling a thing, I will say The Turdburglar is discovered, and two things are true. 1) Like surprise turds, you will not see it coming. Like season one, American Vandal has crafted a shockingly complex, genuinely intriguing mystery that it unpacks in equally clever ways. And 2) The Turdburglar’s unmasking is secondary to the emotional wallop that it comes with during the season’s masterful final stretch. Yes, American Vandal is still very funny. Yes, we are discussing a mystery surrounding actual piles of poop. But maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a show featuring numerous shots of people shitting their pants should ultimately end on the idea that in life—high school and beyond—it’s what is on the inside that counts.
American Vandal season 2 debuts on Netflix Friday, September 4.