I love a dark drama. I’ll always pick a show that will leave me feeling sad over something that will lift me up. This has no correlation to my personality, so I wonder what that says about me? One series that fed my desire for darkness this year was Netflix’s teen drama, Grand Army. The show follows five high school students, at Brooklyn’s largest public school, who are dealing with a lot of sh-t — to put it shortly. Before the series dropped I read a review that said, and I’m paraphrasing, that what this show did wrong was give these kids too many burdens and no happiness. In my eyes, this was an endorsement. After having watched the series I’m not sure what this writer was looking for. It’s not like these characters are walking around day-in and day-out showing physical signs of depression. Were they looking for an episode where everyone had a prom night to remember? This is not that show. This is a show where you they want you to forget you’rewatching TV. One of the things that struck me most is the acne. This isn’t high school through an Instagram filter. There’s no professional hairstyling, there are no designer brands, it’s just public school realness.
Where 13 Reasons Why sensationalized the worst parts of high school, Grand Army feels grounded while still being in your face. The first episode opens on one of our main characters struggling to help retrieve a displaced condom from inside her friend. The whole time this is happening the viewer has no idea what she’s trying to retrieve, we only know it’s painful, which is why I was cringing the whole the scene. A show that elicits that kind of reaction in the first few moments will hook me. In this case, once I was hooked there’s so much going on it didn’t let me go. Joey Del Marco is dealing with slut shaming from a teacher and her reputation makes it harder for her to get justice when she’s sexually assaulted by her closest friends. Sid Pakam needs to write one of those soul exposing college application essays to get into Harvard, but when someone posts the paper online everyone finds out he’s gay, including his traditional Indian parents. Leila Kwan Zimmer is the adopted Chinese daughter to Jewish parents who’s made fun by her “real” Chinese classmates. This feeling of not belonging is juxtaposed by her willingness to do pretty much anything to feel accepted, especially hooking up with guys who couldn’t care less about her. Then there are Jayson and Owen, two Black saxophone players whose horsing around in the first episode leads to a suspension, jeopardizing important auditions they had lined up, and highlighting the school board’s disciplinary strategies that disproportionately affect Black and Brown students.
But the star of this series (in my eyes) is Dominique, played by Odley Jean, whose IMDb page lists the show as her first and only credit. Dominique is the daughter of a Haitian immigrant, trying to focus on her studies so that she can become the first in her family to attend college. Things get difficult when her sister with no health insurance gets injured at work, forcing her to supplement the family income, on top of raising her nieces and nephews and chasing a dream internship. Oh, and a budding romance! A super cute one, I'll add. But Odley’s star-making moment, when she really makes you forget she’s playing a character, arrives in episode 7 during a job interview as she delivers an emotional monologue in a single take, discussing mental health services in Black communities, and her own struggles. She asks, “Who’s actually allowed to be angry?”
Not to take anything away from Odley’s performance, but that speech about her character’s experiences as a Black woman was written by a white man. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of representation in the writer’s room, despite a diverse onscreen cast. Back in September, Duana wrote about Ming Peiffer’s accusations that she and two other writers quit after being racially exploited and abused. During a series of tweets sent out around the time the trailer dropped, Ming alleged that show runner, Katie Cappiello also refused to listen to concerns from BIPOC writers that Dominque’s storyline was poverty porn. But it didn’t read like poverty porn to me. Dominique has some of the happiest moments in the whole series. Her storyline actually left me feeling the most hopeful. To add another layer to this situation, Cappiello has known Odley for 8 years. Odley attended Cappiello’s girls’ theatre program on a free scholarship offered to her personally. Perhaps Cappiello wasn’t willing to deviate from her plan for Odley’s character and that’s why the writer’s poverty porn concerns were ignored? Regardless the accusations sound more troubling than creative differences.
I didn’t know any of this before watching the series, and it although it’s disappointing to hear, it doesn’t change my opinion about what’s on screen. A lot of other, deserving people did some great work on this series and I think that deserves to be celebrated. There’s some speculation that perhaps Netflix didn’t promote the series as hard as it had planned to following the public accusations. I really hope the show gets a second season, although I’m not holding my breath. But a renewal could be an opportunity to address and learn from the problems behind the scenes. There are certainly more stories to be told. One critique I had while watching was that when you’re following five leads it’s a balancing act and nine episodes didn’t feel sufficient. I want a chance to really live with these characters and dig deeper into their lives. Especially, when this diverse group of talented young actors is giving performances that are begging for it.