Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Grand Army’ On Netflix, A Drama That Follows Five Students At A Massive Brooklyn High School

Grand Army, about a massive fictional high school in Brooklyn, starts off unexpectedly: A bombing occurs in nearby Grand Army Plaza. It’s supposed to be like 9/11 for the kids in the school, all of whom were born after 9/11. But it’s also an unusual way to introduce audiences to the five main characters in the series. Does it work?

GRAND ARMY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: A grimy bathroom next to a school locker room, with an inscription asking what’s better, “A good fuck or a good shit?” The votes seem to be about even.

The Gist: Grand Army takes place at the fictional Grand Army High School, the largest public high school in Brooklyn. We’re introduced to the main characters we’re supposed to follow as they all hunker down in various parts of the school after a bombing occurs nearby.

Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion) starts off by going into that grungy bathroom and digging out a condom that’s stuck inside her friend Gracie (Keara Graves). But she also has her divorced dad to deal with, who wants her in his life more than she wants to be. Dominique Pierre (Odley Jean) is going to skip the party her crush, John Ellis (Alphonso Romero Jones II) is going to in order to watch her younger siblings, but has also hustled to get them into a fencing school.

Siddhartha Pakam (Amir Bageria) goes along with his swim team’s “Bomb Pussy List” that they’re getting together on Instagram, but balks when his teammates want to include his sister Meera (Ashley Ganger). He encounters Leila Kwan Zimmer (Amalia Yoo), who was adopted from China as a baby but is finding that she doesn’t fit in with the other Chinese students in her freshman class, and offers her up as a sub for the list. When Kwan funds out, she’s happy instead of disgusted by it, even though the caption says “JAP PUSSY”.

Then there’s Jayson Jackson (Maliq Johnson), who has his own goals and is one of the school’s more driven students. During the lockdown, he and his buddy Owen (Jaden Jordan) take Dom’s wallet and drop it down the stairs by accident; when she gets it back, the money she had to register the kids for fencing is gone. To make up for it, Jayson tries to sell some old jazz albums. He also swears he saw the bomber outside the plaza on his way to school.

Everyone who goes to the party later that night has extra steam to blow off over the bombing, but it seems that Joey wants to do something even more thrilling, as we see when she leaves with her friend George (Anthony Ippolito).

Odessa A'zion as Joey in Grand Army
Photo: Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Degrassi mixed with Euphoria with a bit of 13 Reasons Why mixed in.

Our Take: Here’s what we saw with the first episode of Grand Army: A well-acted teen soap that’s trying to deal with serious issues but makes its students — for the most part — come off as overprivileged and whiny. Creator Katie Cappiello has put together a massive cast around the five leads, all of whom seem like 21st century teenage archetypes that we’ve seen in all sorts of premium teen dramas in recent years. In fact, many of these archetypes can be seen in the more surreal Euphoria, right down to the clueless parents who seem to have no idea what their teens are up to.

To thrust these characters, whom we know little about, into a lockdown situation after an Arab-American kills 4 with a suicide bomb nearby was a bold storytelling decision for the first episode, to be sure. But we’re not sure how really effective it is. We know that Joey is good at pulling stuck condoms out of her friend’s vagina. We know that Leila is called “Anne Frank” by other Chinese students. We know that the guys on the swim team are douchebags, but maybe Sid is different. We know that Dom wants to be a therapist. And we know that lockdown doesn’t faze Jayson all that much. What’s designed to be a situation that helps the viewers get to know the main players fails in giving us any more insight into them than we had during the initial scenes.

What we’re not sure about is what kind of school Grand Army is. It sounds like it’s one of those public high schools in New York that only accepts high achieving students, but we only get a little bit of that context from the dialogue. It does look like there is faculty there, but the only teacher that gets any significant dialogue is Kate Wilder (Vanessa Matsui), a brittle, pill-popping teacher who seems overly concerned that Joey is wearing her gym shorts during lockdown.

All five of the leads put in fine performances. We’ve been fans of A’zion (who until not long ago was using her family name “Adlon”; she’s Pamela Adlon’s daughter) for a few years now, and thought Johnson’s turn in When They See Us was strong, so it’s no surprise that they’re the standouts here. We are especially excited to see where Odley Jean’s performance as Dom goes; Dom has a lot at stake in the real world, not the rarefied are of the school, and it’ll be interesting to see her ambitions come in conflict with reality. We need a little more from Sid’s and Leila’s stories to get an idea of whether we’re going to follow them or not.

But the show lacks focus, at least at the outset. Even the surreal Euphoria had more of a center of gravity than Grand Army does.

Sex and Skin: At the party, Des keeps pulling away from his girlfriend Flora (Marcella Avelina) as they get closer to having sex.

Parting Shot: In order to blow off some steam, Joey and George leave the party and ride the subway. Let’s clarify that: They ride on the outside of the car, at the end of the train. Kids do that all the time, right?

Sleeper Star: We certainly want to see more of Amalia Yoo as Leila; the fact that she’s having trouble fitting in with other Chinese students because she was adopted from there as a baby is a story we’re eager to follow. Her animated dream where she fights off zombies that look like her classmates might have been a bit of a left turn, but it illustrates her character’s conflicts very well.

Most Pilot-y Line: Joey and friends make fun of “how cute” it is that Leila’s parents drop her off at the rager. We just see yet another set of parents who just have no idea what’s going on with their kid.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Despite our complaints about Grand Army, the performances give us hope that the show will transcend the cynical start, where a small tragedy is cooked up to make these students identify with something outside their limited universe.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

Stream Grand Army On Netflix

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