Netflix’s “Grand Army” (premiering Oct. 16) technically isn’t an adaptation of Katie Cappiello’s 2013 “Slut: The Play,” though it features three characters from the play—including the its central character—with one of the roles even being reprised by an actor from the play. Instead, Cappiello’s “Grand Army” goes from focusing on just one central character—in “Slut: The Play,” it was 16-year-old Joey Del Marco, a girl who is raped by three of her friends—to following five very different students at Grand Army High School in Brooklyn, New York. So while the Joey character (Odessa A’zion) and her story are certainly front and center in “Grand Army,” the series is ultimately more of an ensemble teen drama a la “Degrassi” or “13 Reasons Why,” only grittier than the former and, thankfully, less bleak than the latter.
However, in comparing it to those (or really any) teen dramas, it’s worth acknowledging that “Grand Army” doesn’t exactly offer anything new to the teen genre at this point. Not in its depiction of sexual assault, not in its depiction of teenage slut-shaming and cyberbullying, not in its depiction of a “seemingly normal” high school student being capable of horrifying things, not in its depiction of a closeted gay teen story, and especially not in its depiction of the struggles (upon struggles, upon struggles) of Black students. That’s not even necessarily an indictment of “Grand Army,” as plenty of teen dramas have successfully existed without reinventing the wheel.
“Grand Army” has assembled an extremely talented cast though, which, for the most part, drives its stories forward in a way that makes it worth watching the full season. As the biggest name of the cast, A’zion comes into “Grand Army” with the most expected of her, especially as the one who has to play a character who gets sexually assaulted. It’s heavy material, and while A’zion is clearly very capable when it comes to playing the opinionated, vibrant, socially conscious teen girl Joey’s introduced as, there is something absolutely and uncomfortably captivating in the way she plays Joey in the aftermath of her assault, with all of that vibrance drained right from her. While there is plenty of room to criticize the presence of yet another story about sexual assault, especially in a “prestige” teen drama, “Grand Army” captures the unfortunate feeling and reality of the story so well—both in A’zion’s performance and the writing—in its depiction, even when certain beats (from the slut-shaming to the system failing Joey) are familiar. This is, after all, the “Grand Army” story initially inspired “Grand Army” in the first place.
The rest of the “Grand Army” cast is also very much up for the task of portraying these familiar storylines and characters in a way that still makes the audience want to invest in the stories. That’s the case for Sid (Amir Bageria), the potentially Harvard-bound, swimmer son of Indian immigrants, struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. That’s the case for Jayson (Maliq Johnson), a young Black jazz musician who witnesses firsthand how disproportionate punishment for Black kids can alter their lives. That’s the case for Dom (Odley Jean) story, as she finds herself putting the weight of the world on her shoulders to achieve her academic and professional goals and help her family stay financially afloat.
Right after A’zion, Jean is easily the second lead of the series, and she is so good in as Dom, so engaging, that it’s easy to get wrapped up solely in her story, with her ride or die circle of friends and her relationship with teen activist and Chapel Hill-bound baller John (Alphonso Romero Jones). But that also comes with the baggage that there is a sense of dread with Dom’s character—in a different way from Joey’s, where her sexual assault is looming—in wondering how many more obstacles the series can throw at the character without her reasonably devolving into the “angry black woman” trope the character even acknowledges that she can’t become. While her relationship with John is a highlight of the series and a true spark of joy in a series that doesn’t inspire too much of that too often, the sense of dread is still there. With every new obstacle in Dom’s way and every setback she has in trying to “hustle”—which is only sometimes portrayed as the sad story that it is—to support her mother, older sister, and older sister’s kids—it becomes more and more worrisome that there will not be a light at the end of the tunnel. However, Jean’s performance essentially keeps that light ignited, often by sheer force of will. (Last month, series writer Ming Peiffer tweeted about how she and two other writers of color on staff “quit due to racist exploitation and abuse” from Cappiello, with one of the writers constantly asking to Cappiello to not make Dom’s story “poverty porn.” )
But it’s Amalia Yoo, reprising her role as Leila Kwan Zimmer from “Slut: The Play,” who has the toughest task of anyone onscreen, as the Leila character is either a complete mess or the show’s one bit of absolutely brilliant subversion, with pretty much no room in between. As a naive freshman at Grand Army High School who is just attempting to fit in—both at school and in the world at large—yet finds herself constantly failing, Leila is the type of character that should be easy for the audience to latch on to and to hope figures out how to deal. Especially when it comes to things like her understandable struggles of feeling like a culture outcast—as she was adopted by Jewish parents in a Chinese orphanage when she was a baby—and her desperation in getting a boy who’s not worth any girl’s time to like her. Instead, Leila arguably ends up being just as big of a villain as the boys who sexually assault Joey. It’s not just a matter of Leila being “annoying” either, as the series reveals more and more her chilling sociopathy, attention seeking, self-centeredness, and entitlement, in a way that goes far past teenage hormones and feels at odds with the grounded stories the series is telling with everyone else.
Initially, part of that comes with one of the worst devices of the series, Leila’s ultraviolent animated fantasies. While the device is supposed to play off Leila’s early established love of “The Walking Dead,” even set in a zombie-riddled post-apocalyptic world, this particular choice to explain Leila’s psyche works far better in a scene in the season finale—that reveals Leila has basically been drawing these fantasies… and that she even draws at all—than it does at any other point in the season. No other character has fantasies throughout the season; the closest things get to a change in the narrative style is in an episode where Sid’s college essay is read as a voiceover, which is another device that feels wildly out of place.
The more the layers of the Leila character and her psyche are pulled back, the less she fits into the show at all (even without the fantasies), as the otherwise grounded, honest story that the show is telling is not at all equipped to handle the baggage that comes with Leila and the inner workings of her mind. Especially as the series can’t seem to decide on what Leila means to it. There’s eventually a moment of attempted catharsis when Leila finally sticks up for herself against the girls in her class who constantly mock and bully her for not “really” being Chinese, constantly insulting her in Mandarin because they know she doesn’t speak the language. It’s perhaps the one moment of all nine episodes where Leila is even worth rooting for—and it’s punctuated by her telling the girls, “speak fucking English.”
For all the things about the show that do work, as familiar as they may be, the things that don’t quite work really don’t work and stick out as simply incongruous. Starting with the second episode, there’s a framing device that opens and closes the episodes, of a mysterious person typing up a manifesto for Grand Army High that becomes progressively more violent. Eventually, the manifesto’s author is revealed, but the fact that there’s even a mystery component to this show at all ultimately makes no sense. The manifesto also comes to the show in the wake of the suicide bombing that happens in the pilot, a plot point that the series attempts to tie into Sid’s story and the racial tension he regularly sees and experiences, but works far less than the casual racism Sid’s white swimming teammates constantly hurl his way.
In a post-“13 Reasons Why” world and one in which “Euphoria” currently airs, the teen drama is in a place where it demands to be taken seriously. And to do that—to become a “prestige” teen drama—that means depicting all the sordid and messed up things happening to teens, no longer glamorizing them, and often suggesting that contemporary teens don’t even have fun at all. Because if they do, bad things end up happening. “Grand Army” is relatively tame compared to those shows, in terms of both style and substance, but it’s solid overall and it’s clearly got a built-in market, especially on Netflix.
“Grand Army” premieres Oct. 16 on Netflix.
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