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Grand Army is an Entertaining Watch, But Lacks ‘Wokeness’ Behind Screen

A show can only be as progressive as its creators are backstage.


The reviews are in for Netflix’s new teen drama, and they’re not great. From the perspective of reviewers and movie critics, the show is viewed as flimsy and “a weaker Euphoria,” according to IndieWire. However, the only thing an average viewer really cares about is if it’s entertaining, representative, and not offensive or tone-deaf. Overall, Grand Army fills these criteria, but it definitely has some controversial aspects.

Grand Army takes place at one of the largest schools in New York City and follows five students, each with a unique set of struggles. Each episode begins with mysterious messages being typed into a document, followed by a loud “Disney channel gone emo” type intro. About ten minutes into the first episode, a bomb nearby causes the school to go on lockdown and emotions are high. As everyone is crammed into a tiny section of the stairwell, we are introduced to the main characters that we will stick with for the next nine episodes.

There is Leila, an annoying freshman who makes dumb decisions but accurately represents the whirlwind that freshman year can be. Then Jayson, who is a talented saxophonist, along with his best friend Owen. Joey is another character, who after a traumatic incident in the middle of the show goes from a loud, vibrant, social activist, to a wounded shell of her former self. Sid is a senior on the swim team, attempting to open up more in his essay for Harvard. A personal favorite is Dominique, who needs the strong support system she has from her friends as she struggles to provide for her family, while also staying on track in academics. The final episode is powerful, and leaves the viewer feeling relatively satisfied. However, it’s clear the show intends for the audience to continue a dialogue surrounding these characters and what they represent in American politics and culture. 

A teenage viewer might like that Grand Army features characters that almost any high school student in 2020 can relate to. The show has a wide and diverse representation of what it means to be a teenager, and it’s not just lumping all of high school together. They included everyone from seniors to freshmen, who often have different sets of issues. The show doesn’t try to hide or sugarcoat any of the characters and their flaws, and it’s hard not to become invested in the character’s individual trajectories. 

Similar to other more modern teen dramas — 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria, and others –– Grand Army addresses many larger societal issues, including mental health for black women, the school to prison pipeline, sexual abuse, and cultural intolerance. There are countless more that are addressed through the microaggressions and stereotyping that many of the characters face, specifically from a group of senior boys that are casually racist and sexist in almost every scene. In terms of teenage dramas, the show doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but even the more predictable plotlines were done in a way that keeps the viewer invested.

However, it’s understandable that many reviewers harshly criticized the show. At times, the pacing seems off. For example, some scenes feel unnecessary and leave the viewer confused about why the scene was so drawn out. 

Also, although the kids are all going to school, Joey listens to a podcast at one point about the pandemic, making the timing of the show unclear. Is it set in 2020, but in an alternate reality where COVID-19 doesn’t exist? Or is the podcast just an unnatural attempt at trying to cram in another societal issue? The show features a similar confusing moment when it tries to squeeze in terrorism with the bombing at the beginning, which also seems a little off. While school shootings are on many high schoolers’ minds, terrorism in the way they represent it seems a little outdated. It’s many years after, but they still want to bring it back to 9/11. The school shootings that have happened in more recent years aren’t random bombers or Muslim terrorists.

Besides these critiques, the show is entertaining and worth a watch, though it’s hard to recommend a show with the level of complexity behind the scenes that Grand Army has. On the day of the release, one of the writers, Ming Peiffer, came out with a tweet accusing Katie Cappiello, the show’s creator and lead showrunner, of “racist exploitation and abuse.” According to Peiffer, she and two other writers of color quit after Cappiello called Human Resources (HR) on a Black writer whose haircut, “made her uncomfortable.” Peiffer also alleged that Netflix tried to underpay a Latinx writer. No follow-up interviews were made, and Cappiello never responded to the tweets, so we still don’t know the full story. 

Overall, it’s important to remember these allegations when looking at the show as a whole. These claims of racism go against the messages of unity and empowerment that are broadcasted in the show, and to be honest, a show can only be as progressive as its creators are backstage. At the end of the day, the show is entertaining and relatable, and hopefully, it can help students see themselves represented on screen. But you have to remember that the show is not perfect, and where you might see empowerment, others might see something else.