What do a Chinese adoptee with white Jewish parents, a closeted Indian-American Harvard hopeful, a Haitian-American first generation college applicant and a white Free the Nipple activist have in common? They all exist in the same universe in “Grand Army,” a soapy teen melodrama set at a Brooklyn public high school. With a plot that includes bomb threats, sexual assault, Green Card marriages, and the school-to-prison pipeline, Netflix’s not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to compete with HBO’s “Euphoria” is all over the place.
Controversy began swirling around the series in early September, when a former writer alleged racism in the writers’ room on Twitter after Netflix released a first trailer. While showrunner and creator Katie Cappiello has yet to respond to the allegations, the obvious missteps of the show speak for itself. Despite a blatant play at relevance by filling out an inclusive ensemble, “Grand Army” cannot help but center its white girl protagonist. The result is a dizzying mish-mosh of half-baked stories that is light on meaningful character development and long on tired cliches about people of color. “Grand Army” is so eager to represent Gen Z one can feel the elder Millennial writers foaming at the mouth in every frame.
The pilot begins with a thwarted terrorist attack disrupting a school day at Grand Army, the fictional Brooklyn high school full of ambitious students from across New York City. Each episode begins with an ominous typewritten confessional letter spewing heavy-handed diatribes such as: “Borders aren’t secure. Markets aren’t secure. Democracy’s not safe.” As if a terrorist attack wasn’t enough inciting incident for one TV show, “Grand Army” throws in sexual assault, an unfair suspension of a Black boy for harmless horseplay, and an immigrant family pressuring their daughter to enter into a Green Card marriage. There’s enough story here for each one of these characters to have their own TV show, and Cappiello should have stuck to the stories she’s equipped to tell.
Though the Netflix synopsis claims the show follows five teenagers, “Grand Army” is clearly most concerned with the story of Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion), an outspoken white teen feminist and dancer who primarily hangs with three jerky white guys. When her commitment to sexual liberation leads her friends to cross the line, a community that revered her for “Freeing the Nipple” quickly turns on her. Joey’s storyline is taken directly from Cappiello’s 2013 play “SLUT,” a critique of rape culture and slut-shaming that has been performed at high schools around the country. An exciting discovery, A’zion imbues Joey with a fiery spirit and emotional vulnerability. The epitome of white feminism, she fumbles her racial politics with very little repercussions, a huge missed opportunity for “Grand Army” to take a creative risk.
Coming in secondary focus is Dominique or “Dom” (Odley Jean), a first generation Haitian-American who aspires to be the first in her family to go to college. When she struggles to stay ahead in school when finances become tight at home, her mother suggests she marry a young Haitian to support the family, interrupting a potential romance with sweet activist John (Alphonso Romero Jones II). In just one of the show’s either half-baked or unintentional commentaries on race, Joey’s all white dance team and Dom’s mostly Black basketball team rarely interact. Both characters have a chorus of girlfriends that don’t get much in the way of personalities or screen time, spreading the performatively inclusive ensemble cast thinner than is followable.
Oddest of all is the unhinged Leila (Amalia Yoo), a naive freshman who turns pathological after getting attention from an older guy. Self-absorbed and ditzy, the show’s animated diversions inside Laila’s head play like a twisted zombie graphic novel about teenage girls who explode boys’ heads between their thighs. The show’s slut-positive, Free the Nipple feminism feels five years too late — a lifetime in today’s fast-paced culture — revering cunnilingus as the epitome of sexual freedom feels like a 40-something straight woman’s view of equality. Is that really the best straight women get to hope for? Stranger still is Laila’s ongoing battle with the Chinese girls at school, who talk smack about her in Mandarin without realizing she understands. Are we supposed to applaud when, in the season finale, she tells them to “speak fucking English”?
Casual racism in “Grand Army” is ubiquitous, but when none of the characters pay a price for their ignorance, the show seems to be shrugging off any responsibility to comment on the harsh world it puts onscreen. One needs no knowledge of the writers’ room controversy see through such a careless attempt at meaningful commentary, but the backstory makes it even harder to stomach. Even the emotionally manipulative music cues and shaky handheld camera angles signal a lack of originality. Let “Grand Army” be a warning not only to those who co-opt others’ stories, but artistic styles as well. Any attempts at pandering will not be tolerated.
“Grand Army” premieres Friday, October 16 on Netflix.