How to satirize true-crime series: With 'American Vandal,' school is in session

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Netflix premieres a satire of true-crime shows made, so it would have us believe, by high schoolers. Well, these must be

The "American" in "American Vandal" is a sign of the signs of the times.

The title of this satire of true-crime shows, premiering Friday on Netflix, points not only to dramas like "American Crime Story" but to the influential public radio series "This American Life," with its bone-dry yet somehow personal tone and twist endings. That radio series was also behind "Serial," the popular documentary podcast whose central question — did the person convicted of this crime commit it? — "Vandal" borrows to play with.

Here, the suspect is high school student Dylan (Jimmy Tatro), a "Jackass"-influenced, amiable jerk expelled for spray-painting penises on the cars of faculty members.

"Consider for a moment the type of person who would spray-paint … in a staff parking lot,” says our narrator. “What do they look like? Who do they hang out with? Where do they sit in the cafeteria? What kind of grades do they get?"

It is certainly possible to parody the style and tone of something as long as "The Jinx" or "Making a Murderer" in a few minutes, just as you can echo the elements of a Cinemascope epic on a television screen. . The one thing you can't capture about a long-form documentary in a short-form sketch is, obviously, its length. There is a certain joyful nuttiness in going the whole way.

The main point of a work like "Serial" — referenced in this eight-episode series — or "The Jinx" is that it's immersive. It gets you involved, seduces you into its rhythms and its language. It turns you one way and then another. Size matters. Co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, with showrunner Dan Lagana, go the whole 100 yards here to make a perfectly proportioned pastiche of a new sort of 21st century storytelling.

But it goes a little farther. As we see about halfway through the first episode — if we didn't notice in the opening credits that “American Vandal” was supposedly produced "in association with The Hanover High School TV department,” with a "Mr. Baxter" listed as an executive producer — the series we're watching is the product of high school students Peter (Tyler Alvarez), Sam (Griffin Gluck) and Gabi (Camille Hyde), their friend with a drivers license, who gets a “co-producer/transpo captain” credit. As in "Serial," but more so, the creators become characters, inextricable from the story they're telling.

And so "American Vandal" also joins a tradition of tales of teenage sleuthing, and does so quite sincerely. There is room for a love story, as well. If you are going to make your box big, it is best to have more than a few things to put in it, and the show’s creators have filled their story with major characters to care about and minor characters who make their mark. Form and content each get their due.

Much care has been taken to get things right — or, rather, the right amount of right. "American Vandal" is presented as the work of smart kids who perfectly understand the language of the series they're emulating but are still limited by their circumstances; they are not the horribly precocious twentysomethings in teenagers' clothing who inhabit many high school series.

Indeed, few shows I've seen catch high school society, with its self-contained seriousness, as well as "American Vandal" does, as well as the mix of innocence and experience, confusion and certitude that mark that age. It’s as engrossing as the series it set out to satirize and moving in ways you would not expect. A story well told is a story well told, however it comes together.

‘American Vandal’

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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