It’s miserable being a teenager.
This is both indisputably true (hello, fellow ex-teens), and the grimly unrelenting thesis at the heart of Netflix’s newest teen drama, Grand Army. This hyper-realistic Brooklyn-set series, which was adapted by playwright Katie Cappiello from her own 2013 play, SLUT, argues from the start of its audaciously graphic opening scene that high school is pure anguish: If you’re not being slut-shamed by everyone from teachers to friends to random classmates on your finsta, you’re being racially profiled by administrators and school safety officers, or bullied for your religious or ethnic background, or sexually assaulted by someone you thought was a friend. And you don’t get a break at home, either—if your parents aren’t actively standing in the way of your success and/or safety, they’re passively facilitating a growing dependence on drugs and/or alcohol, counseling you out of standing up for yourself or your friends, or failing to notice that you’re falling into an abyss.
So, you know, hitting Play on this one means you’re signing up for a real good time.
Genre-wise, Grand Army can probably best be described as a slice-of-life drama, each episode charting the path of five different students from five different Grand Army High social scenes as they navigate five different landscapes of rocky personal terrain following a (fictional) suicide bombing in the pre-COVID winter of early 2020. That last detail might not be something you fully picked up on from the vaguely haunting teaser that dropped when the series’ premiere was announced in September, but it doesn’t really matter. Despite being a categorically Big Deal, the bombing itself serves more as a way for the show’s writers to spark personal narrative arcs for the main characters than as a way to add meaningful new weight to any of their lives. As the news unfolds around the kids in the days that follow, we learn that a handful of people died and dozens were grievously injured just blocks away from the building they spend the majority of their waking hours in or around. And even then, it’s barely the bombing itself that upends each character’s season-long trajectory, but more the lockdown that’s necessitated by it.
To wit: For Joey (Odessa A’zion), a popular white junior who’s known as much for her flirty bids for attention as she is for her aggressively woke personal politics (and whose story was told in SLUT), the lockdown serves as a way to get her close enough to the edge of two different kinds of cliffs with both her slut-shaming Biology teacher and her best friend’s brother, that when she eventually falls, the drop is sure to be devastating. For Leila (Amalia Yoo), a transracial adoptee whose inability to connect either with her Chinese heritage or her adoptive Jewish religion have made her freshman year a nightmare, it serves as a mechanism to get her enough on the radar of some Cool Juniors. (Or at least, added to the deeply gross “Bomb Ass Pussy” list they make to entertain themselves with during the lockdown). Through it, she’s able to start seeing herself—wisely or not—as somehow to whom good things might happen. For Jayson (Maliq Johnson), a goofy Black saxophonist, it serves as a way for a prank he and his best friend (Jaden Jordan) play on Dominique (Odley Jean) to go just far enough that they end up staring down the barrel of the school-to-prison pipeline. Meanwhile, for Dom herself—the youngest daughter of a Haitian immigrant mother who has to hustle every second of the day to make sure her family can make ends meet—it barely registers. In fact, at the end of the day, Jayson and Owen’s prank, which ends up costing her two hundred hard-earned dollars, ranks way higher on her list of concerns.
The only main character who the bombing makes any substantively personal impact on, really, is Sid (Amir Bageria), an upperclassman swimmer just out of reach of Joey’s social orbit who immediately understands that the bomber being Muslim will paint a xenophobic target on his own Indian-American back. Even that anxiety, though, is quickly subsumed by a greater identity crisis he’s secretly suffering: one that is both informed by and in opposition to his Indian background, which ends up coming to a head in the form of his Harvard admissions essay. That’s right: in having destroyed the lives of dozens of people and added to the ruinous stereotyping of anyone who even looks Middle Eastern, the greatest impact the Grand Army Plaza Bomber actually ends up having on Sid is the gift of a good hook.
If all of that sounds like a lot for a single 9-episode season to take on, you’re not wrong. (And I haven’t even mentioned the graphically violent animated dream sequences Leila’s narrative crashes into at least once each episode.) While each of the five characters the series follow are given real depth and complexity, the basic laws of physics limit any meaningful interiority being extended to anyone else in their lives. Leila has regular breakdowns over not belonging anywhere, at home or at school or at synagogue, but only she is given the space to lash out. When it comes to her parents, or the best friend she has a falling out with, or the Chinese girls who bully her at school, they’re hardly more than wallpaper. Sid, similarly, gets to explore the weight of his brown skin in the weeks after the bombing, but his younger sister Meera (Ashley Ganger), who exists mostly to vamp it up as a Joey superfan and roll her eyes at his overprotectiveness, is given no such latitude. See also: Dom’s unshakably cheerful friends and social activist boyfriend, whose lives both at home and on the streets of NYC might as well be perfect, for all we’re shown about how much friction they encounter in the world. Not to mention everyone in Jayson’s orbit, who are given what feels like the least amount of screentime, despite his story ultimately doing the most work to give all five characters a more concrete connection than the school they all attend.
Unsurprisingly, given the fact that Joey’s is the story Cappiello focused on in SLUT, the secondary characters in her arc are the most fleshed out of the bunch—three of her four friends are even given lead billing in the pilot, and retain near-protagonist status throughout the rest of the season. Still, theirs are lives lived to orbit Joey, with only the occasional pit stop to booty call Leila, or throw racist jock-bro “jokes” at Sid. Whatever private dramas and traumas they might be living with get short shrift.
Weirdly, despite the fact that it’s so pressed for time that it can hardly fit in any of the characters it does focus on, Grand Army nevertheless manages to also be deadly slow. Much of this is due to the fact that half the series feels like it’s been filmed underwater. Close-ups bob and shimmer, faces falling out of focus or even out of sight entirely; longer shots get cluttered by blurry objects in the extreme foreground, the action in the center of the frame ending up distorted or obscured. Whenever the soundtrack isn’t leaning into a pop/hip hop drop, it slides into a kind of abstract techno flow, ebbing and rising beneath each scene like some kind of unfathomable tide.
Screens of every variety—phone, laptop, tablet, television—get similarly abstracting treatment, which is particularly exhausting given how committed Grand Army is to showing exactly how much time today’s teens spend staring at their phones, and how disinterested it is in using any of the kinds of meta-textual overlays so many other modern shows have used to make the tiny worlds on our phones a bit more TV friendly. There’s no such innovation here—the kids of Grand Army live on iMessage, Instagram, Docs, Google, and the show desperately wants to make sure you get that full corporate context every time they turn to a screen to do anything. The instinct to want to capture that extra frisson of realism is understandable, but it’s completely undercut by the show’s delirious cinematography, as the actual text of the messages these kids are exchanging end up, time and again, distorted to the point of complete illegibility.
And that, really, is where I ended up landing with this series. As solid as all of the lead performances are—Jean and A’zion being particular standouts, though they all more than hold their own—it never felt like there was enough of any one thing for me to grab onto. Grand Army’s purpose, to its last silent stand of a moment, felt completely illegible. This might be a function of timing—Cappiello started working on this project over a decade ago, and between the oddly stale inclusion of a Muslim bomber in a story meant to take place in 2020, and the clunky updating of a pre-#MeToo story for a post-#MeToo world, it shows—or it might be a function of a writer’s room that was allegedly so toxic and exploitatively racist, it pushed at least three non-white writers to quit. It’s almost certainly a function of taste. (Hi, it me, the Teen TV fan on record as hating the miserable stab at Gen Z realism in Euphoria.) Whatever the case, it ended up—as we say here in the halls of Paste TV—being rated Not For Alexis.
And so, I will repeat: It is miserable being a teenager. If you decide that having that fact hammered home across the nine excruciatingly long hours it takes to get to the end of Grand Army’s first season is for you, may you enjoy your binge. If you decide it’s not? Fair play, too.
As for all you still hovering in uncertainty, wanting that shot of high school realism but shying away from the prospect of so much misery, let me ask you this: Have you heard the good news of SKAM?
Grand Army premieres Friday, October 16th on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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