Rape, racism, homophobia, poverty — the NYC teens in Netflix's new drama are really put through the narrative wringer.

By Kristen Baldwin
October 07, 2020 at 08:00 AM EDT
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JASPER SAVAGE/NETFLIX

"Teenagers being awful to each other and themselves" is a tricky genre to get right. Stories that strive to create an authentic depiction of adolescence — with all its harrowing insecurity, unchecked anger, confusion, and cruelty — often pile so many layers of misery upon their characters that the viewer, too, feels punished. There has to be some kind of outlet: humor, romance, a nightclub operated entirely by high schoolers. In Netflix's overstuffed new drama Grand Army, a group of Brooklyn teens are pummeled by life in a variety of grim ways, too many of them predictable.

Grand Army (premiering Oct. 16) opens in a grimy girls' locker room, as Joey Del Marco (Odessa A'zion) helps her distraught friend Grace (Keara Graves) retrieve a rogue condom from her vaginal canal. (Did you hear that, grown-ups? This show ain't afraid to be real, so just deal with it.) Joey is confident and popular; her main goals involve making captain of the dance team and avoiding dinner with her estranged dad. Also roaming the halls of Grand Army high: Jayson (Maliq Johnson) and Owen (Jaden Jordan), best friends and saxophone players in the school orchestra; Sid (Amir Bageria), a swim team star whose application to Harvard was deferred; Dominique (Odley Jean), a diligent student and aspiring psychiatrist; and Leila (Amalia Yoo), a Chinese girl who was adopted at birth by a white Jewish couple, making her a target of mockery from the "real" Chinese students at school.

When a terrorist detonates a suicide bomb near the school, these disparate cliques are thrown together for a tense afternoon in lockdown. The concept of safety, and how quickly it can be taken away, is an ongoing theme in Grand Army: Dom's sister Sabine (Sagine Sémajuste) loses her job, leaving the family at risk for eviction. Leila lets herself be used by George (Anthony Ippolito), a boorish bully, after the swim team puts her on their "bomb p----" list. Owen and Jay's irresponsible horseplay during lockdown triggers the school's zero-tolerance disciplinary procedures, which disproportionately affect Black and Brown students. Joey faces scorn and slut-shaming after she's sexually assaulted during a night out.

Joey's story line comes from Cappiello's 2013 play Slut, though Netflix is quick to assert that Grand Army is not based on said play. Instead, Cappiello builds on existing characters from that work (including Dominique and Leila) and adds new ones, expanding the story's purview beyond rape culture and into themes of systemic racism, sexuality, and ethnic identity. Some of this plays out via increasingly familiar teen-TV tropes: Of course, one student struggles with telling his parents and his bro-buds that he's gay. Of course, a character's fantasy life is rendered in frantic bursts of graphic-novel-style animation. Of course, an unseen writer types a menacing letter to the students of Grand Army — a mystery that's dragged out for all nine episodes, only to deliver a truly sad-trombone reveal in the finale. Of course, several of the teachers and administrators are written as finger-wagging scolds. ("This is a classroom and you're dressed like a hooker!" snaps Joey's teacher, sounding vaguely like a human adult in 2020.)

Where Grand Army succeeds is with its cast. A'zion (late of CBS' short-lived sitcom Fam, and daughter of Pamela Adlon) is a natural talent, and she embodies Joey's teen bravado and crippling fragility with painful accuracy. Newcomer Odley Jean gives an astonishing performance as Dom, who shields herself against a torrent of challenges with immutable focus and a firm intolerance for all things petty. The scenes between Dom and her friends — played by standouts Crystal Sha're Nelson, Brittany Adebumola, and Naiya Ortiz — brim with humanity and love. Dom has to work three times as hard as her white peers to achieve her goals, and she's understandably mad about it. But she also knows anger is a privilege not afforded to Black women: "My anger doesn't count."

This is where things get a little uncomfortable. When Netflix dropped the first trailer for Grand Army on Sept. 2, playwright Ming Peiffer — a Grand Army story editor and a co-writer of episode 8 — claimed on Twitter that she and two other writers of color on the show quit after experiencing "racist exploitation and abuse." As of now, those allegations have not been verified, and Peiffer has made no further comment. Nonetheless, they make viewing the show — and certainly reviewing it — more complicated. Take Dom's monologue about her anger, and about how important it is for young Black women to have access to nonwhite mental healthcare workers. It is genuinely moving, and beautifully performed by Jean. It is also from a script credited to a white man, Andy Parker (Imposters, Stanistan), which would feel awkward under the best of circumstances. (Three episodes are credited or co-credited to people of color: Peiffer, story editor Randy McKinnon, and co-producer Hilary Bettis.)

Confession: I'm not sure where I'm going with this. Grand Army, like any show, deserves to be judged primarily on the quality and execution of its story. But Grand Army, like any show, does not exist in a vacuum — and pretending that who is telling a story doesn't matter at all would be irresponsible, foolish even. What I do know for sure is that Grand Army is ambitious, often to a fault. Still, there are flashes of beauty — let me say again, Odley Jean is a revelation — amid the gritty teen boilerplate. B-

Grand Army premieres Friday, October 16 on Netflix

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