American Vandal is a Netflix series that parodies the Serial or Making A Murderer-type true crime documentary by turning the documentary over to high school students. The central crime of the first season is best summarized by the question of “Who drew the dicks?”, and the recently-released second season: “Who is the Turd Burglar?” That sounds silly, and at times it is, but what makes American Vandal a phenomenon is that regardless of how silly you find the premise, it makes the investigation legitimately compelling, and it provides a surprising amount of commentary on the issues of the day.
For most of the second season, American Vandal is focused on the investigation of several poop-related crimes that occurred at a fictional Catholic high school. After the first episode’s school-wide laxative poisoning, you may find all the poop a little off-putting, but as it gets closer to the truth, the show makes a sudden shift and turns its attention squarely on our use of social media, and the shift is so unexpected that the reveal of the use of poop being a metaphor for the fakeness of social media actually kind of works.
As the culprit is caught and the season winds down, we get a final concluding statement:
“We’re the first generation that gets to live twice. Our existences are simultaneously experienced and curated, presented, packaged, polished for our own protection — digital fortresses made of bits, bytes, and pixels; walls made of zeroes and ones […] We do all create versions of ourselves, to appear to be the curators of our own stories, to appear to be in the driver’s seat of our own lives.”
This is not a completely unheard of sentiment, but it’s poignant in its observation that living is different now. “YOLO” is not completely accurate anymore, because while we can’t physically live through an experience twice, we can re-live a version of that experience through our Instagram stories, or Snapchat memories, or Twitter moments. An entire house party can be re-lived so long as you find an ample amount of social media posts to stitch together, as the first season of American Vandal showed.
The second part of that statement is one that we’re much more familiar with. As we increase our digital footprint, through things such as posts, geo-tags, web activity, another version of ourselves slowly comes into existence, and that other version of ourselves tends to be different than our real, true self. It’s an image, a facade, that we put up for the world and it tends to resemble who we want to be rather than who we actually are, a Tyler Durden to our nameless everyman narrator.
And eventually, those two versions of ourselves meet, bringing forth such identity crises as deleting old social media posts. We paint this picture of ourselves using social media and in constantly trying to maintain that image, we sometimes lose a little bit of our real selves. We post pictures of our food because everyone else is doing it, we take vacation pictures to document that it really happened, and we post selfies with our significant others to prove that we’re loved, and happy. But how much of it is real? And which version of us is our real self? Who am I really?
In the last moments of the season, we learn of the Turd Burglar’s motivations. Through 4chan posts and YouTube manifestos, we find out that his crimes were his way of bringing everybody down a peg, his way of telling everyone “You’re all full of shit.” And as Peter, the director of the documentary within the show, says: “it would be easy to dismiss his messages as the ramblings of a mad man, if there wasn’t so much truth to them.”