‘Grand Army’ fumbles to wholeheartedly express social issues

With the release of Netflix’s “Grand Army” on Oct. 16, the show attempts to highlight many problems that are identifiable within today’s youth 

Gaby Jones, Culture Editor

The new teen drama, “Grand Army” is centered around five kids from Brooklyn and the multitude of issues that the diverse group of students must tackle. These problems only to be made worse when a bomb goes off right next to the school. 

The show starts off with a terrorist attack. Despite this being a significant event in all the students’ lives, throughout most of the episodes, it does not hold much weight. Instead, we are immediately thrown into various topics such as racism, sexuality, cultural identity, sexual assault, poverty, etcI feel that if they were going to begin a story with such a large event, then they should have taken more time to acknowledge the generations desensitization to traumatic events.  

In the first episode we are introduced to the five main characters, Joey Del Marco (Odessa A ‘Zion), Dominique “Dom” Pierre (Odely Jean), Siddhartha “Sid” Pakam (Amir Bageria), Jayson Jackson (Maliq Johnson) and Leila Kwan Zimmer (Amalia Yoo)Although it’s clear that the racial inclusivity is a blatant tactic to discuss hot-button issues among minorities, I recognize that, regardless, the diversity helps to normalize seeing people of color in mainstream coming of age stories.  

Initially, I had thought each main character was going to get an episode centered around themselves (similar to “Euphoria) and cut back to clips of the other characters; however, the structure is much more undefined 

Aside from the from the Pilot, each episode opens with a cryptic typewritten message from an unknown individual who is later revealed at the end of the season. This short section felt out of place and like an excuse to add a mystery aspect which does not make sense within the context. 

There is little history among the five characters, so their relationships with each other do not develop too much during this season, but it seems like they are setting up for deeper connections within a possible second season.   

Tackling five character with deeply complex issues all at once was an ambitious move made by the showrunnersWith each character, the storytelling come with its faults, as well as some praises. 

 Joey Del Marco (who is presumably the central character despite Netflix’s best efforts to keep each character’s importance equal) is a self-confident and unabashedly outspoken individual who makes attempts at allyship amongst their diverse school.  As the show continues, I really hope the show goes on to address the performative aspects of her allyship and activism. Soon into the show, Joey’s formally luminous persona is ripped away from her when she is assaulted by two of her closest friends. I applaud A’Zion’s performance throughout Joey’s story because it is heartbreaking and riveting to watch the character develop from the night of the assault, to the news that the system failed her, to the confrontation of her rapists, and then finally her regain of confidence and feelings of freedom that are symbolized in her final dance scene.  

Dominique “Dom” Pierre is a Haitian-American who wants to be the first in her family to attend college. Throughout her story we watch as Dom struggles to manage school, provide for her mother and her sister’s familyapply for internships and explore her new relationship with school athlete and activist, John Ellis (Alphonso Romero Jones II). Dom knows that she will have overcome more obstacles than her privileged counterparts in order to get her dreams. Something very refreshing about Dom is that the acknowledgement of her disadvantages does not come with extended complaints (the someone in her position is entitled to). This is due to the fact that she is self-aware and overwhelmingly selfless which are great things to have in main characters. Jean’s portrayal of Dom is exceptional and one of my favorite parts of this show. Similar to Joey, you find it easy to root for her.  

Mentioning self-awareness, the next character is the opposite. Leila Kwan Zimmer is a freshman at Grand Army and is searching for her place in the world. She struggles with her identity being that she is a Chinese adoptee raised by Jewish parents. Leila finds it hard to connect to her culture or even fit in with the Chinese girls at her school. Her story is accompanied by graphic cartoons that illustrate her feelings and exist within a “The Walking Deadesque universe. Her desperation to feel accepted becomes readily apparent when she chases after an older boy who also happens to be one of the boys who assaulted Joey. Leila is the type of character that goes from being the menace to the villain in the matter of minutes.  As the season progresses, we see Leila go from being selfish and attention seeking to a more violent and sociopathic version of herself who seeks to instill fear in others. Once again, I commend Yoo’s performance. Leila is a very layered character who I found myself feeling sympathy for even in times where she did not deserve it. Yoo definitely had one of the most difficult characters to portray and even though Leila is overall very unlikeable; however, I aintrigued to see what the writers plan on doing with her character.  

Both sexual identity and terrorism are explored through the next character. Siddhartha “Sid” Pakam is an Indian American student who faces racial profiling and threatening stares after the bombing.  Throughout the show, he fears that they never amount to any substantial harm. At the same time, Sid is applying to Harvard and is struggling to find something meaningful to say in his college essay. That is, until he starts to discover and come to terms with his sexuality. In the end of the season, there is a wholesome, but predictable romance between him and Victor-the boy who initially helped him with his application. I was relieved that, by the last episode, Sid abandoned his friends (who also happen to be Joeys’ rapists) who perpetuated casual racism and ignorance towards him the entire season.  

The last main character’s story seemed to have had the potential for important social commentary, but ultimately it is overshadowed by other plot lines. Jayson Jackson is talented young black musician who, along with his friend Owen, have their sights set on performing with the New York All-State Band. When the school is put on lock-down, an act of mischief gets both boys in trouble. Due to Owen’s larger involvement in the act, he is suspended for an extended amount of time and sent to a school for kids in similar situations. Jayson feels that Owen’s punishment is unjust, and that the situation was blown out of proportion simply because of their race. Despite Owen pushing their friendship away, Jayson becomes a leader in school activism to protest Owens punishment and the even larger issues surrounding it. The last scene of the season is a visually powerful moment that depicts Jayson placing an X over his mouth and taking a moment of silence during his solo in front of the packed auditorium. In the next season, I hope to see Johnson get more screen time, so he can relay the importance of Jayson’s story to the viewers. 

The last episode reiterates the show’s relevancy and up to date timeline and even makes a reference to the Coronavirus. I am very interested in seeing how COVID-19 will be worked into a second season. 

Overall, “Grand Army” has promiseWith a possible renewalhope they refine the episode structure, expound on their characters, acknowledge the harmful effects of casual racism and explore the depths of performative activism. 

With that being said, recommend this show not so much for the relevancy(because nothing they discussed is necessarily new informationbut more so for the great young actors who propel each story and supply the show with enough captivating moments to keep you going through each of the nine episodes.