Grand Army is one of the latest gen-Z teen dramas. I watched the 9 addictively bleak season 1 instalments back to back over the course of only one day.
I was watching the trailer for Grand Army on Youtube, and I saw like, 100 comments calling it variations of: ‘Euphoria lite’, ‘budget Euphoria’, ‘Euphoria but worse’. There’s a weird assumption that Euphoria invented gritty teen dramas, which isn’t true. Pre-dating Euphoria, there is My So-Called Life, Skins, SKAM, Friday Night Lights, Puberty Blues, My Mad Fat Diary to name just a few. I find the Euphoria comparisons to literally any new teen drama reductive and annoying, and it makes me feel bad for any writer or producer wanting to innovate and add their touch to the genre in the future. But, if we’re really going to go there and compare them…Grand Army is good. I personally enjoyed it a bit more than I did Euphoria. It felt more real. I liked how it was more stripped back. It was purely dedicated to character and plot and wasn’t as concerned with aesthetics. To be honest, Grand Army’s 5 overlapping main storylines were jam-packed and bleak enough. Any experimental lighting and camera-work would have caused me to absolutely spin out I think.
The pilot opens with a pack of teenage girls banging on locker doors chanting to lyrics to Bodak Yellow. In the first 10 minutes, a suicide bomber has detonated a nearby building and killed 4 people, thrusting the fictional Brooklyn high school into a high-anxiety, chaotic lockdown…granted, most of the them are more worried about whether or not the massive party they were going to hit up later is still on, and a misogynistic Instagram page ranking 50 of their female peers on their ‘bomb ass pussy’.
There are characters who’s lives are already so complicated and difficult that the act of terrorism feels like less of a threat than the pressing personal shit they already have to deal with on a daily basis.
For example, while they’re all sitting crammed in the hallways waiting to go home, Dominique has her wallet teasingly stolen by Jayson and Owen, two cheeky saxophonist best friends. They accidentally drop it down the stairwell and someone down there steals the $200 she needed to support her struggling family that week. Her reaction to this is far worse than her reaction to the bomb, bring home the fact that literally every day is an emergency for her and her family.
Dominique is a high school upperclassman trying to balance her school work, social life, and obligations at home. A first-generation daughter of a single Haitian mother, Dominique helps care for her niece and nephew while simultaneously trying to keep her spot on the school’s basketball team, spend time with her boyfriend, hang out with friends and land a meaningful internship. Out of all the characters, Dominique has the most going on — and it weighs on her. When her sister is injured at work, she tries to find ways to step in so that her family isn’t short on rent — but doing so risks the life she has built for herself, in more ways than one.Teen Vogue
With an arc of what many people have called ‘poverty porn’…not sure about that…where she is adult-ified and has to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, it’s a lovely contrast to witness her pure, budding relationship with activist king John Ellis. These two can do no wrong, I am obsessed with them as a couple. She finally got her Love and Basketball moment!
Dom’s supportive, fun-loving group of close female friends was also one of the highlights of this show. No one is shady, or going behind each other’s backs, or talking shit or betraying one another. Her friends are one of her main pillars of support, and they’re always there for her.
The fear Indian-American Sid feels that day concerns his deferment from Harvard, pressure to have sex with his girlfriend and finding out the suicide bomber was a muslim male. Sid isn’t muslim himself, but he knows the social implications, and begins to prepare for the racial profiling and the increased suspicion toward him and his sister that will follow.
Toward the end of the series, he has a traumatic experience of being outed by kid on the swim team, who publishes his revealing Harvard essay on social media. Sid accuses Victor, the sweet natured bi boy who was helping with this essay. He has been resisting he and Victor’s mutual attraction for as long as possible. I read somewhere that this relationship was ‘rushed’ and they didn’t give us ‘enough reasons why Sid and Victor liked each other’…what reasons other than getting along well and finding one another attractive do we need? Victor was considerate and forgiving even though Sid lashed out at him in fear. I ship it so fucking hard.
There is a very realistic social atmosphere the show creates, where POC struggle to stay afloat on the daily and the white characters barely notice, and if they do, it’s only on their terms, when they feel like acknowledging it. They will take a kneel and share activist messages online, but when it comes to actually witnessing the ubiquitous racism, homophobia and sexism that their peers experience, they’re either complicit or blissfully unaware. They may disagree with it, and even feel disgusted by it, but they are often too afraid to confront it when it really matters. A bleak, real-life parallel.
Teachers stay policing the visibility of breasts and micro-managing the length of hemlines to this day. It was #freethenipple in 2015 but nothing much has changed. Joey feels she is wrongly criticised by her black peers for her ‘basic white feminism’ and lack of genuine allyship…but her version of standing up to her racist idiot friends is saying ‘wait, am I some white cunt co-opting shit?’ or ‘oh my god bro that’s racist you can’t say that’ and swiftly moving on.
I loved Odessa A’zion’s performance as Joey. Joey’s confident but fractured soul shines through and you can really sense how badly she craves true respect and kindness from the guys in her life. Her confronting arc begins when she gets sexually assaulted in a taxi by George and Luke, two of her close male friends, while her equally wasted, would-have-been love interest Tim sits by and does nothing. I felt so much second-hand betrayal in this moment.
George and Luke are friends who she should have been able to mess around with, without getting hurt. Before the incident, I was hoping that deep down they weren’t as jack-assed as they projected themselves at school and at parties.
He’s not a main character, but I was consumed by Tim’s cowardice. He was introduced as a sensitive and caring figure in Joey’s life and ending as someone too scared to stand up against his friends and be there for her when it truly mattered. Just before the assault, he was frustrated that he couldn’t get her to romantically commit to him. She was always physically affectionate in nature toward all her male friends. She felt very comfortable sitting on their laps, touching them, kissing and hugging them platonically, sometime flirtatiously. But she was mainly ‘all over’ George and Luke in the taxi that night to piss off Tim. She felt his disapproving attitude was hypocritical because of the many girls she’d seen him flirt with and hook up with on a regular basis. Like the others he was very high when the incident unfolded, and clearly experiencing feelings of rejection and jealously. He turns away as his friends make out with Joey next to him, and as the assault unfolds, he is either too high to react to the situation…or he is just blatantly ignoring her as she cries for his help and for them to stop. I think it’s the latter. He only finds the courage to back her AFTER the case is dismissed on the grounds of lack of evidence. The show ends with him snorting coke and desperately trying to make contact with Joey again. Tim is a reminder of how silence and complicity is a form of violence. As much as I shipped them at the very beginning and enjoyed their sweet moments, his failure to do what’s right is not something she will ever be able to forgive or brush aside.
No one considers that (Joey’s) pierced nipple is a political statement. No one thinks that she is a tactile person who trusts the boys and Anna because she has grown up with them. She feels free to be provocative and ‘sex positive’ around them because she thinks she is safe around them. She thinks that they would never do anything without her explicit consent. It is also never discussed that her provocative and flirty behaviour has never brought her anything except popularity, acceptance, and her ‘queen bee’ status until she is raped. She is put on a pedestal for her ‘slutty behaviour’ and then pulled down from it for getting caught in a vulnerable position for that behaviour — just another example of mixed signals that young girls get from the media and society that surrounds them.Smita M, Meaww.com
Now, Jayson and Owen…that shit breaks my heart. I don’t even know what else to say. Owen falls victim to the school to prison pipeline, which is a very real and very relentless form of racism and classicm which ruins countless lives. Dom was right to be upset with them, especially Owen, but Joey drawing a teacher’s attention to the prank had grave consequences. Stupid shit like that should never have the ability to destroy the educational and career prospects of a person, no matter how ‘talented’ or ‘untalented’ they are perceived to be. These boys deserved to stay besties and play sax together at the Lincoln Center. And I would have loved to spend more time with both of these characters and and see more of Jayson’s personal life. They definitely had the least screen time.
Grand Army, practically spilling over with social messages and dramatic plot, only had 9 episodes to explore everything. I feel if it was given more episodes it could have really delved into everything on a much deeper level, but I commend their execution considering it was such a small amount of episodes they had to work with. I
I am highly anticipating it’s renewal for a second season.
- You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention Leila. I can feel bad for her at times, but generally, Leila is an exasperating, achilles heel of a character who I’d rather not waste my time on.
As much as I enjoyed it, I am apprehensive about the intentions of this show. Three WOC on it’s writing team quit due to workplace racism and not having their relevant perspectives valued or listened to. It makes me wonder if this show which is so incredibly rife with 2020-style social justice commentary that it kind of feels like it’s bashing you over the head was actually just posturing and pandering to it’s teen social media activist audience, instead of trying to genuinely make meaningful statements on things so complex and sensitive.
While more details have yet to emerge around these claims, it’s difficult to recommend Grand Army for this reason, even as all of the performances from this compelling cast of newcomers rise above the mixed-bag of material. How to reconcile what might have happened behind the scenes when it’s so directly in opposition to the project’s proudly proclaimed message of progressive ideas and empowerment?Aisha Harris, npr.org
Grand Army is available on Netflix.