tv review

Grand Army Is at Its Best When It Lets Its Teens Lead the Way

Odley Jean, Brittany Abdebumola, and Crystal Nelson in Grand Army. Photo: Jasper Savage/Netflix

Every teenager in Grand Army, the new Netflix series that follows the lives of several students at a large, fictional Brooklyn high school, walks around with some type of invisible albatross slung around their necks. These kids carry burdens, responsibilities, expectations, and shame, and as the nine episodes in the first season progress, they sink further and further underneath the weight of them, even when they appear to have head and shoulders fully above sea level.

If that description suggests this show has some things in common with Euphoria, well, it does to an extent. Like the HBO coming-of-age series that recently won Zendaya an Emmy, Grand Army is bracingly honest in its look at teen sexuality and the challenges that come with trying to carve out an identity when everyone is being inspected under an Instagram microscope. But where Euphoria takes big swings with its imagery and sidebars into surreality, Grand Army sticks, for the most part, to stripped-down reality. While Euphoria has a glittery, glossy patina, many scenes in Grand Army, even ones that take place outdoors, seem to be unfolding under the flat overhead lights of a high-school hallway. As fantastic as Euphoria can be, it never lets you forget you’re watching a TV show, whereas Grand Army, at times, does.

There are occasional deviations from that authentic approach, most notably in the animated sequences based on the sketches of one of the show’s principal characters, Leila (Amalia Yoo). Every time those aggressively cartoony sequences show up, they seem to be bursting in from another show. Grand Army is at its best when it lets the stories of these young people, and the exceptional cast of unknowns who play them, especially TV first-timer Odley Jean, lead the way.

Grand Army was created by Katie Cappiello, a theater teacher and playwright who based the series, in part, on her theatrical work, Slut: The Play. A major story line is taken directly from that preexisting piece and focuses on Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion), a member of the dance team who is extremely vocal about female bodily autonomy. In an early episode, after one of her teachers chastises her for dressing suggestively, Joey shows up to school braless, in a white T-shirt that says, “Free the nipple.” Just like the Joey Del Marco in Slut: The Play, she also goes out one night with her best male friends and is sexually assaulted, an incident that transforms her sense of self and alters the trajectory of her daily life.

Other characters wrestle with sexual conflict and boundaries as well, including Sid Pakam (Amir Bageria of Degrassi: Next Class), a swim-team captain and academic all-star who seems to be locked into a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, and the previously mentioned Leila Kwan Zimmer, a Chinese adoptee of white, American, Jewish parents who doesn’t feel like she belongs to any culture or any place, really. Leila is the most maddening character on Grand Army for reasons that actually speak well of the show: Her behavior is so recognizably self-involved and teenager-y. She will do virtually anything to feel accepted, including hooking up with guys who don’t necessarily value her. She’s the kid who texts someone and immediately follows up with a second text that says, “My phone can be weird so let me know when you get this.” She’s so needy that you feel for her, but also so incapable of considering others that you want to take her by the shoulders and shake some perspective into her adolescent head.

Much of the first episode takes place during a school lockdown following an explosion within blocks of the school, an event that is mostly important as a narrative device and a reminder that the outside world constantly adds extra layers of anxiety to what these kids are already confronting. While stuck in a stairwell during that lockdown, Jayson (Maliq Johnson) and his best friend Owen (Jaden Jordan), both saxophone players in the school band, start playing keep-away with a wallet that belongs to Dominique (Jean), a basketball player. When it gets lost, the boys get in serious trouble. The issues that arise surrounding their punishment is one of several attempts to delve into racial justice, attempts that are cursory but become more effective as Grand Army progresses. There’s a scene in one of the latter episodes in which Jayson and two fellow students attempt to talk to the principal about the inequities they perceive at the school only to feel like they’re being blown off. The principal’s platitudes and dismissiveness disguised as concern sound bracingly familiar. (And, given allegations of “racist exploitation and abuse” made on Twitter by a former writer on the show, grimly ironic as well.)

Then there’s Dominique, the MVP of Grand Army, who is hustling so hard every day she barely finds time to sleep. In addition to keeping up with her studies and her sport, she’s also trying to make sure her Haitian immigrant mother and their family can pay the rent, helping to raise her nieces and nephews, and pursuing internships that will hopefully help her become the first member of her family to go to college. Odley Jean, a student of Cappiello’s who makes her TV debut here, radiates the warmth and seriousness of this young woman, who is doing the most while hiding a lot of what she’s dealing with from her girlfriends and the fellow basketball player she starts dating, John Ellis (Alphonso Jones). The romance that develops between Dom and John is the sweetest, most charming part of the series. But Jean’s performance may be the most revelatory. During a job interview, she delivers a monologue in a single camera take that is a whole emotional journey but in no way feels actorly. Again, like the best parts of Grand Army, it makes you feel like you’re watching real, regular life unfold in front of your eyes.

All of the actors — A’Zion deserves a shout-out, too, for her intense performance — approach their roles with the kind of natural compassion and care that is crucial to a character study like this. Not everything in Grand Army works. Some story lines get short shrift and certain elements that seem important initially fade into the background. Because the show is set in the present-day and ends the season in early March of 2020, there is a jarring nod to the coronavirus pandemic that adds a melancholy undertone to what would otherwise be some happy developments for these characters. But even when it missteps, Grand Army still achieves its main objective. It makes you care about these kids, see beyond their surfaces, and appreciate that oft-quoted adage that is especially relevant these days: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Grand Army Is at Its Best When It Lets Its Teens Lead