Arts and Entertainment

“Grand Army”: Realistic or Stereotypical?

“Grand Army” has been receiving many mixed reviews, and we’ll further unpack the flaws and strengths of Netflix’s newest show.

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By Emily Tan

One of the latest teen dramas to hit Netflix, “Grand Army” is said to be one of the most realistic yet. Created by Katie Cappiello, a former theater teacher, the show is loosely based on her work “Slut: The Play” (2013). Set at Grand Army High School, a prestigious specialized high school inspired by Brooklyn Tech, it explores the various lives of the teens who attend it.

“Grand Army” focuses on the struggles of its five main characters, though their conflicts escalate quickly as the season progresses. Joey Del Marco (Odessa A'zion) is reluctant to spend time with her father, while Leila (Amalia Yoo) struggles to adapt as a freshman. Siddhartha "Sid" Pakam (Amir Bageria) becomes distraught over his Harvard deferral. Jayson Jackson (Maliq Johnson) is worried about getting into the All-State musical performance. And Dom's lost her hard-earned $200, thanks to Jayson and his friend Owen's antics.

In the first episode, a normal school day is interrupted when a bomb explodes right outside the school. It acts as a catalyst for the rapid acceleration of each character’s personal issues. A fun night out for Joey ends in her being assaulted by the people she cares about most. Dom, already taking care of her family, has more responsibility put on her shoulders when her sister injures her back, stripping them of a source of income. Jayson and Owen's innocent prank results in a week-long and 60-day suspension for Jayson and Owen, respectively, which potentially ruins Owen’s future and causes Jayson to grapple with his own guilt in the matter.

In some ways, the show is the most realistic portrayal of teenage life in NYC that I've seen. As someone who goes to a specialized high school, the show does a good job depicting the academic pressure and social atmosphere, while still maintaining an interesting plot. “Grand Army” has been compared to shows like “Euphoria” (2019-) due to its harsh portrayal of teenage struggle, absent of any sugar coating. But in “Grand Army,” the teens actually go to class, dress realistically, and face less glamorous but very real problems.

That’s not to say that the show is without its flaws, however. Occasionally, it falls flat and almost pushes the stereotypes it seemingly works so hard to combat. The bomb plot is never fully developed but used as a backdrop for copious Islamaphobic remarks, many in the form of casual jokes. While the comments are acknowledged as problematic, they're brushed aside rather than properly discussed. We don’t even see a Muslim character struggling with this bigoted sentiment, which means these stereotypes are mentioned throughout the show without meaningful opposition. Sid isn't Muslim yet still perceived as a threat due to his brown skin—that doesn't stop him from remaining silent when his parents tell him to differentiate himself from "these sick Muslims." Additionally, the show inadvertently minimizes important points; Jayson and Owen's struggles as Black teenagers are extremely real and serious and reflect larger issues with racism entrenched in the NYC education system. The harm of zero-tolerance policies, lack of non-Asian minorities, and the overt targeting of Black students are all discussed in the show. But when these struggles are treated with the same level of importance as some of the less serious topics in the show, it diminishes their impact.

The show presents an interesting and varied cast of characters, some of whom have real audience appeal. Joey's experience with sexual assault is a crucial story to tell, and the show offers a raw and sensitive exploration of her struggling in its aftermath. Yet her performative activism is incredibly problematic. From letting her friend's racist remarks slide to contributing to Owen and Jayson's unfair suspensions, she contributes to the issues she claims to be fighting against. Hopefully, this is taken somewhere next season, as there seems to be some self-awareness in the show, with Instagram comments shown about Joey's brand of white feminism. There was some criticism about Sid's "model student turns out to be gay" plotline being cliché and overdone, but critics fail to consider the lack of South Asian LGBTQ+ representation and the way that his story is uniquely important due to the stigma around this topic in these communities. Additionally, Leila's character is extremely unlikeable, self-centered, and boring—and we don’t learn anything about her besides these flaws. Her one-dimensional personality takes away from the poor treatment she receives from other characters, detracting from some of the significant issues she faces, like her difficulty connecting with her culture as an adopted child. While these are relatable problems, viewers are too focused on how annoying she is to care.

Something important to consider while assessing the show is the fact that several former writers of “Grand Army” have come forward about their alleged poor treatment. Ming Peiffer stated on Twitter that she and the other two writers of color had quit working on the show due to racism and overall subpar treatment from Cappiello and producers. While Cappiello has previously stated that “Grand Army” was influenced by the stories of her students, she is still a white woman writing a narrative about various POC struggles. The show has no shortage of gestures meant to show solidarity to these struggles, but if Peiffer’s claims are true, these gestures seem hollow.

There are redeeming qualities: the show is engaging and well-paced, with some extremely moving moments, and the last episode leaves the series with a lot of material for a potential second season. The acting is definitely the highlight of the show. Yoo's role as Leila is effective to the point of viewers wanting to physically fight the character in moments of extreme narcissism and dramatics. Jean delivers a convincing and appropriately multidimensional performance as Dom. Azion's Joey is heartbreaking yet powerful, conveying her feelings of betrayal and hurt, as well as her eventual growth. Even before the life-changing events of episode three, she's great at portraying the care-free, opinionated, and at times self-centered Joey, which makes the aftermath of her trauma that much more moving. Johnson really shines in the last episode, highlighting Jayson's resolve to do all he can to fight for Owen, and Bageria shows Sid's character development and journey to self-acceptance in a subtle but moving manner.

The show is inspired by the stories of Cappiello’s students, which brings an air of authenticity to the acting and plot. For a successful second season, the show would do well to retain this authenticity (one of its most appealing aspects), as well as iron out the more problematic aspects and unnecessary melodrama (again, the bomb). Along with that, it's worth considering how “Grand Army” might benefit from diversity behind the scenes to match its on-screen representation. But all that being said, I have no doubt that many people, myself included, will be waiting eagerly for this story to continue.