Netflix’s ensemble drama treats its young characters as authentic people instead of tiresome stereotypes.
You can tell a lot about a TV show by how it opens. Netflix’s latest teen drama Grand Army starts its inaugural episode with shots of a particularly disgusting locker room. It’s not the most appealing visual, but it telegraphs showrunner Katie Cappiello’s commitment to showing the uglier side of adolescence.
Taking place in the eponymous high school–the largest public school in Brooklyn–Grand Army follows its students in the aftermath of a bombing in a nearby plaza. While the story is centered on the characters’ personal lives and political convictions rather than the bombing, the attack looms large over the teens. The paranoia of becoming the targets of terrorism adds an extra level of angst to the hormonal cauldron that is high school.
The series is an ensemble show in the truest sense, juggling five main plots and a few minor subplots through nine hour-long episodes. While the main characters all know each other and have some overlap in their social circles, they are more acquaintances (and sometimes enemies) than friends. As such, their subplots rarely intersect. While this makes it a little hard to get into the show (since a large cast with disparate plots means it takes longer to get to know each character) the strength of the writing and its cast will hook you in.
Most stories set in high school have protagonists who may be teenagers in age, but not in personality. Characters who are sure of themselves and (usually) make the right decision. Not so here. While these characters are all intelligent, and oftentimes compassionate and socially conscious, they are also insecure, brash, impulsive, and cruel. Grand Army portrays the complexity of adolescence, with its losses and triumphs, in a way that’s not often seen on TV.
This complexity is most clear in the character of Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion), a junior who often makes waves in school for her outrageous personality and strong political views. Her self-assured personality masks the pain that is caused by her parent’s divorce, and while she often couches her antics as feminist, it often seems like she’s mostly looking for attention.
Grand Army portrays the complexity of adolescence, with its losses and triumphs, in a way that’s not often seen on TV.
Leila Kwan Zimmer (Amelia Yoo), is also attention-seeking. Not only is she struggling with her identity as a Chinese orphan adopted by Jewish parents, but as a freshman, she is adrift in the high school social scene. Her attempts at finding herself lead her to make poor decisions, which are compounded at her even poorer attempts at fixing them.
Leila’s identity crises are shared by Siddhartha “Sid” Pakam (Amir Bageria), a senior whose desire to please his family makes him unsure of who the real him is- which hinders his ability to write the perfect essay for his Harvard admission. Similarly, sophomore Jayson Jackson (Maliq Johnson) finds his Julliard dreams in danger when a prank gone wrong causes him to face suspension.
Perhaps the only character with her head squarely on her shoulders is Dominique Pierre (Odley Jean), a junior who manages to be a star basketball player, an academic wunderkind, and a Grade-A hustler with a haircare side business. However, while she is doing everything she can to secure a good future, her family’s poverty may force her to compromise her dreams.
Grand Army is an adaptation of Cappiello’s “Slut: The Play”, and it expands the source material’s focus from being just about slut-shaming to also include other social justice issues, most noticeably racism. While a TV show certainly needs to have a broader scope than a play, sometimes the non-sexism based plots feel a bit tacked on rather than integrated into the rest of the narratives.
This is most obvious in the fact that the two main characters who weren’t in the play (Siddhartha and Jayson), are given the least screen time. Siddhartha’s plotline is the least impactful to the overall plot, with his biggest contribution being the inspiration for Leila to attend a party that jumpstarts her character arc.
The plotlines dealing with racial identity and class tend to feel retread at times, most noticeably with Dominique’s arc. While she is the most likable of the main cast (bolstered by Jean’s charismatic performance), her struggles to overcome her socioeconomic status can be seen as “poverty porn”. Siddhartha’s parents often feel stereotypical, and the other Chinese students only exist to torment Leila. It doesn’t help that a former writer for the show, Ming Phieffer, as well as two other writers of color, left the production over charges of racism.
While the show does a better job at sexual politics than racial or socioeconomic ones, it isn’t completely un-self-aware. Joey’s feminism is often very “white feminist”- with a greater focus on things that affect her personally than larger injustices. She will try to butt in on behalf of people of color who are already defending themselves. Most damningly, while her friends often say sexist, racist, and homophobic things, she never actually stands up to them- she only laughs it off.
Although the show doesn’t always get its commitment to social justice right, either on-screen or (allegedly) in the writing room, it’s still a compelling show. This is in large part due to the strength of the cast. Not only are the characters written with nuance, but the actors add it in their performances. A’zion gives the self-assured Joey true vulnerability. Jean makes the hustling and mature Dominique sweet and tender. Yoo gives the well-meaning Leila the self-centeredness that hinders her efforts to grow. Johnson portrays Jayson’s evolution from clown to mature young man effortlessly. And Bageria makes the stonewall nature of Siddhartha feel like both an act and completely natural.
These characters make me want to see more of Grand Army, as the last episode left every plot thread loose. While I’m disheartened that the writing room may have been a toxic environment, it produced a show that I truly enjoyed. I just hope that if it does get renewed, the showrunners will take the spirit of social justice that’s on the screen to heart and keep it behind the camera as well.
Grand Army premieres on Netflix October 16th