Are you all caught up on American Vandal? The first season, which asked the very important question of who drew the dicks, was a surprise success. Award-worthy even. The second season doesn’t disappoint, even if it lacks a standout star like the first installment’s Jimmy Tatro. Again, the Netflix series spoofs true crime documentary series perfectly by not just poking fun but also weaving together a compelling plot about poop pranks and high school social castes.
The makers of American Vandal know their shit — by which I mean the real docs they’re mimicking, though they also know plenty about feces. While the first season hopefully steered some fans toward Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial, American Vandal Season 2 can also be a gateway to the real deals, including those that directly influenced the story of the Turd Burglar of St. Bernardine and additional picks I recommend as both relevant and requisite.
The Thin Blue Line (1986)
The king of the true crime documentary, Errol Morris’ life-saving film leading to the exoneration of an innocent man convicted of killing a police officer is one of the biggest influences on the American Vandal series in general. One of the most notable homages in Season 2 is where shots change in reenactments depending on perspectives (think of the card in the wallet shot), similar to the way the crime in The Thin Blue Line changes with different testimonials. The show’s co-creator Tony Yacenda told Vulture: “[The] Thin Blue Line was really what got us into the genre. There were tropes we used in Season 1 — like, I love the tape recorder, that really stuck to me — but there’s more of an Errol Morris feeling in Season 2.”
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Another essential classic that serves as a primer for many of today’s documentaries, Steve James’ look at two boys’ high school basketball careers outside of Chicago is a landmark of nonfiction cinema — and a rare (only?) doc to be nominated for an Oscar for its editing. Where it fits with American Vandal Season 2 is in the star basketball player character DeMarcus Tillman hails from a poor neighborhood and gets to attend St. Bernardine because of his skill on the court. This is actually a common thing in America and can be seen in other docs, though Hoop Dreams is the original and best to focus on the idea. I’ve seen reviews of Season 2 mention the film, one of them even punnily calling the series “Poop Dreams.”
One of the big twists toward the end of Season 2 of American Vandal is the revelation that someone Catfished a number of students and then blackmailed them in order to get them to do the dirty work. There is even acknowledgment of the term catfish that originated with this documentary feature and has grown in popularity through the ongoing MTV series. Would a show like American Vandal even think to have fake online relationships if Catfish never existed? What would they call it, if so? Yet nearly a decade later, the original film is likely overlooked even while it proves to be more and more influential with each year.
Scenes of a Crime (2011)
Many of the documentaries that American Vandal links back to are fellow Netflix releases. On the subject of false confessions, the genuine article on the streaming service is certainly the 2017 limited series The Confession Tapes, which focuses on six cases of false confessions leading to murder convictions. Watch that, but also go back and see this feature by Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock that looks at just one instance where police had recorded the entire 10-hour interrogation of Adrian Thomas, who was accused of killing his infant son and was eventually coerced into signing off on having done it despite being innocent.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)
One of the admitted major influences on Season 2 of American Vandal, this shocking limited series was actually made by Andrew Jarecki, who produced Catfish. He had also previously directed All Good Things which is a dramatic fictionalization of the story of Robert Durst and the disappearance of his wife, Kathie, who he presumably murdered. Part of why The Jinx is so engaging and surprising as it unfolds is because Jarecki followed an investigative narrative structure and details were revealed along the way. That’s what inspired the creators of American Vandal, per an Entertainment Weekly interview. Yacenda said:
“I think a lot of it has to do with structure, actually, and storytelling. You know the major facts of the case for Season 1 halfway through the first episode, and you’re just analyzing it from different people’s perspectives, kind of like what they did with ‘Serial,’ [versus] what they do in ‘The Jinx’ or ‘Thin Blue Line.’ So basically the distinction is, instead of putting all of the facts of the case up front and analyzing it, they’re rationing these turning points and making it more of a cinematic story, where you’re introduced to major characters later in the game and the turning points are kind of constructed by the documentarian as a storyteller.
“In ‘The Jinx,’ you don’t know who Robert Durst is until halfway through the first episode, and you don’t know that he potentially killed his wife until the end of the episode. You don’t learn about the third murder until halfway through episode 3, but all of these things have been done. So we wanted to have fun with some of those tropes in Season 2 and make it like the darkest, most cinematic version of a poop crime possible.”
The Keepers (2017)
While The Jinx is the most cited of documentary limited series mentioned by the creators in interviews, but that is an HBO title and of course it’s good for their brand to also recognize fellow Netflix releases. The Keepers has at least been acknowledged by critics in reviews of both seasons of American Vandal. The link is more apt with Season 2, however, because again it’s a limited series that lets the story unfold as it goes along — both in terms of its crime, which is the unsolved murder of a nun almost 50 years ago, and its current investigation. The Keepers also involves a Catholic high school.
Poop Talk (2017)
Everybody poops. A lot of people poop or are pooped on in American Vandal Season 2, which makes the series really push into the gross-out subgenre of high school comedy, a la American Pie. Not everything about the series is focused on true crime, and so not all of my recommendations should be true crime documentaries. Here’s a feature about poop. In Poop Talk, comedians (including Kumail Nanjiani) and experts shed a light on the taboo topic of bowel movements in a funny and eye-opening (and possibly sphincter-opening?) way.
Shadow of Truth (2017)
Back to the Netflix true crime documentaries, this series isn’t as well known as some of the others on this list. But it’s one of those few actually acknowledged as a favorite of and influence on the makers of American Vandal. “Shadow of Truth was a big reference for this season,” star Tyler Alvarez revealed to Collider. It’s another documentary that centers around a false confession, this time from a Ukrainian immigrant who claimed to have killed a 13-year-old Israeli girl who’d been found brutally murdered in her high school bathroom. Tragic and twisty, you can see where the setting of the crime may have inspired the potty-centric pranks of American Vandal Season 2.
Errol Morris gets another spot on this list, mainly because the makers of American Vandal have also acknowledged his recent limited series for Netflix. This one is about the mysterious death of an army scientist, who either jumped or fell from or was pushed out of his hotel window in the 1950s. And it involves more of a government conspiracy angle with its ties to the top-secret MKUltra project involving LSD experimentation. In the Vulture interview, Yacenda mentions how they looked at that doc’s structure:
“The first step is just getting sucked into the story and loving it for the intended purpose. You’re watching, like, ‘Did the government really — they did ALL of this stuff!’ And you forget. And then you circle back and go, ‘Okay, what did they do to make this turning point so compelling?’”
Co-creator Dan Lagana then added about their process:
“One thing I do with a lot of true-crime documentaries is think, ‘What is the high school version of this?’ When it comes to court documents or signed confessions or paper trails, the high-school version will be social media, what kids post on their Snaps and Instagram. We always think, ‘What’s the medium-stakes crime? What’s the less mature, amateur version of this?’ Oftentimes, that’s how we come up with our best bits.”
America to Me (2018)
Steve James also gets another item on the list, as he has an incredible new limited series currently airing on Starz this fall. Like Hoop Dreams, the program is focused on high school and features kids who’ve escaped the poor neighborhoods and institutions of Chicago to attend a much better school just outside the city in the suburbs (it’s also narrated by James in the Hoop Dreams style). There are many docs about teens and high school drama, but this one goes deep into race in America and brings in more perspectives from teachers and parents than is usually presented in this sort of series. Yret it’s still only a bit more insightful on issues involving high schoolers than American Vandal (which is truly that good) just because it’s real.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (2018)
One of Netflix’s most recent hot true crime docuseries starts out as a whydunit. Why did a man rob a bank while wearing a bomb collar, which then blew him up as the police were in a showdown with the guy? As the show goes on, there are many twists and turns and revelations that ask more questions, including whodunit. Who put the collar around him and made him rob the bank, whether or not he was always in on the heist? The final act of American Vandal‘s second season is reminiscent of Evil Genius in that here too was there a mastermind making others do his bidding, and that bidding involved intricate instructions and contraptions, one of which was explosive.
The Truth About TanaCon (2018)
While watching this phenomenal multi-part YouTube documentary, I thought a lot about American Vandal — the first season since the second hadn’t arrived yet. The Truth About TanaCon was made by internet personality Shane Dawson about the failure of fellow YouTuber Tana Mongeau’s new fan convention, and it’s done sort of in the style of a true crime doc despite its subject matter being anything close to as serious as murder. That it also has a fairly amateur feel and involves a lot of social media and online media components only adds to the likeness.