"There's nothing in here, what was the point of this?" Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) says to Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) exasperatedly as he tentatively pokes a pile of poop with a pair of chopsticks in an empty lot in an episode of Season 2 of Netflix's true crime satire American Vandal.
"I think he just wanted you to dig through sh*t with chopsticks," Sam replies with a smirk.
It's a silly scene, one in which it's easy to giggle at the expense of our self-serious documentarian protagonist. But while Peter needlessly gets his hands dirty in that moment, American Vandal Season 2 manages to make wading through countless scenes about actual excrement worth our awhile. Yes, this season can function as an extended poop joke (after all, its central mystery stems from who put laxatives in the school cafeteria lemonade, causing a truly disgusting outbreak of diarrhea affectionately known as "The Brownout"). But as Peter and Sam delve deeper into the social dynamics at the elite St. Bernadine's Catholic High School, it becomes clear that the creators of American Vandal have plenty to say about what it means to use social media and feel alone while coming of age in 2018.
Yes, this mockumentary will remind you that everyone poops, but not everyone poops their pants at school and has to reckon with the fact that footage of this horrifying moment has been posted on Instagram. Blackmail is a surprisingly dark twist on scatological humor, but American Vandal co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault and executive producer Dan Lagana tell Bustle they felt Season 2 was the right time to up the stakes.
"This is like a real crime, with real victims, and the perpetrator is someone with real psychological issues," Yacenda says. He credits the influence of some of his favorite true crime documentaries, from Serial to The Jinx to The Thin Blue Line, as inspiration for this season's arguably more serious tone.
"We felt the funniest version of blood splattered all over the hallways … is poop splattered all over a school."
"A lot of the documentaries that we love are really dark... they’ll start with really horrifying images of a dead mutilated body with blood all over the place, and it gives you that really visceral reaction where you want to look away but you’re really fascinated, you need to figure out how this tragedy were to happen," Yacenda says. "And we felt the funniest version of blood splattered all over the hallways … is poop splattered all over a school."
While Yacenda says that coming up with the idea of the Turd Burglar, a serial vandal wreaking poop-related havoc on an elite Catholic high school, came first, honestly delving into the public and private lives of a handful of well-drawn characters with an emphasis on how they use social media was the natural next step.
"We knew we wanted a serial vandal, and so how would he accomplish all this stuff?" Yacenda continues. "To us it made sense for a lot of people to be involved. Then the question is, how could you manipulate a handful of kids in the modern age? And it just seemed so clear and so honest to us that it’s through social media, because we’re more connected than ever, but in a lot of ways we’re lonelier and more vulnerable than ever, and it would take a criminal to sort of shine a light on that for a bunch of 17-year-old kids."
The season's final episodes reveal that — spoiler alert — the Turd Burglar was an expelled student who sought revenge on his "fake" classmates by catfishing them, posing as a pretty girl on Instagram and developing intimate online relationships with his victims. He eventually obtained explicit photos from them, which he used as blackmail to force them into carrying out his disgusting crimes. It's a convoluted resolution to the season, but it's grounded by the heartbreakingly real psychology behind why each victim — from the star athlete who feels like his friends use him for fame to the outsider who so desperately seeks validation that he's willing to carry out the crimes without even being blackmailed — fell for the ruse.
The level of detail that American Vandal uses to create its online world is staggering, and that only helps make each of these tragic characters feel painfully true to life. There's Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), an eccentric who's obsessed with tea, sometimes inexplicably speaks in a British accent, and is made fun of mercilessly online, where people post videos of him swatting away fruit like a real-life fruit ninja; DeMarcus Tillman, St. Bernadine basketball's golden goose who ultimately feels out of place in a high school full of privileged white kids; and Jenna Hawthorne, a rich girl with the "perfect" Instagram who's bullied when it's discovered she faked the circumstances of a photo she posted on Instagram with Kendall Jenner. Each of their stories is underscored by countless shots of text messages, tweets, Snapchats, and Instagram profiles, hammering home the point that for these students — and for most people in 2018, really — social media can be armor against loneliness or fodder for ridicule, and all of it comes at a price.
Still, the show is careful not to turn this season into an extended Very Special Episode about the dangers of social media. Instead, by the finale, it more closely resembles MTV's Catfish in how it lays bare the deep longing and subsequent self-deception that people experience when they're caught up in a strange social media situation (this is no accident: Yacenda and Perrault say they watched the series in the writers room while crafting this season).
"We loved the idea of not painting social media as this terrible villain at the end of our story," Lagana adds. "That just seems oversimplified when the reality is so much more complex and interesting." While some details of each character's life on social media are huge plot points, Yacenda, Perrault, and Lagana say great care was taken to build out American Vandal's digital world in the most realistic way possible, which meant designing full social media profiles for many characters even when they might only appear on screen for a matter of seconds (while many of them only exist in the American Vandal world, there are a few Instagram accounts that are live and amusing to explore).
"If you freeze frame at any given moment the social media’s on screen, you might catch an added joke here and there," Perrault says. "My favorite moment to pause is Kevin’s Twitter... if you pause at just the right point, there are some really funny tweets." This attention to detail also allowed the American Vandal team to slip in one particularly tough-to-spot easter egg in the final episode — one that's so difficult to catch, Perrault would prefer to keep it a secret. "Let’s just say that there’s a moment we’re proud of in the finale that I think will make fans of the series happy," he says. "It really requires some attentive viewing."
But don't get the wrong idea about the seriousness of the American Vandal creators. Though they're deeply committed to creating something of substance that's more than just an eight-episode poop joke, they're also completely dedicated to that particularly disgusting substance itself.
"We wanted it to be real, like it has to be unflinchingly real," Yacenda says of creating the fake poop used on set, "so if you Google the Bristol scale, which I guess I wouldn’t really recommend you do because it’s really gross, there are different consistencies of poops, and we decided the Maltitol [laxative] would give mostly like a runny, Bristol scale 6 type poop."
Suddenly, it's like the floodgates have opened, and he can't stop talking about poop. "But then there’s some 7 and some 5, and it’s gonna affect everybody a little differently," he trails off, before Lagana jumps in: "In doing all this research, we all sort of discovered how healthy we are or not, so it was educational for us as well." Lagana, Perrault, and Yacenda may not have dug through literal sh*t themselves like Peter does, but at least we know they're more than willing to get a little dirty in the name of good television.