by Linda Krajčovičová
“We’re still here”. “I need to do something”. “I’m marching into a battle.” The intro of Grand Army’s first episode immediately hints that the show will attempt to address more serious issues than might be expected from a TV show about teenagers. The very first scene, showing Joey, one of the protagonists, helping her best friend take a condom out of her body, only supports the argument that the series is there to make people uncomfortable by pushing boundaries and talking about things that others avoid.
Released in 2020 on Netflix, the show’s main storyline is based on a play by Katie Cappiello, who also worked on the television adaptation – as a writer and an executive producer. Originally known as Slut: The Play, the inspiration behind the narrative came from real high school students and their personal experiences. Defining it as a “life’s work”, Cappiello has collected numerous stories which helped her create a piece of work that, if nothing more, definitely has the potential to encourage further conversation: “It’s years of listening to my students talk…It’s years of having kids call you because they don’t know how they’re going to afford school…It’s when they’re struggling with their parents, who can they talk to, and can I recommend a course of action?”. All these experiences were encompassed at first into the characters of the 2012 play, and subsequently portrayed by the actors and actresses of Grand Army.
Addressing topics and issues which do not get sufficient attention in fictional worlds of TV shows or in reality, Grand Army definitely offers a worthwhile and intriguing story that prompts the audience to critically think about social issues such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, prejudices in all spheres, social injustice, or mental health.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, the series focuses primarily on five characters, all having a different high school experience, whether in relation to their background or to the various challenges they are forced to overcome. The most visible of these is Joey, a representation of the ‘popular girl’ archetype, who is both admired and disliked for her status and reputation. Dom, portrayed by an actual student of Cappiello, not only represents a racial minority but also enables the audience to see the challenges of growing up as the first generation in a foreign country. Sid and Leila are characters who struggle with searching for their identities and with belonging to a specific group, either in terms of nationhood, sexuality, or beliefs and convictions. Both, more than the other protagonists, are influenced by peer pressure and the show’s nine episodes allow the audience to watch them attempt to find answers to these questions. Lastly, Jayson, a talented musician, is faced with a moral dilemma and contemplates personal successes as well as a fight for the common good.
Intertwined in their life stories, all characters experience sad, difficult, and even traumatic events that ultimately change them, for better or for worse. They each also give voice to those groups who are in some way oppressed, exploited, or treated unfairly and poorly. Addressing topics and issues which do not get sufficient attention in fictional worlds of TV shows or in reality, Grand Army definitely offers a worthwhile and intriguing story that prompts the audience to critically think about social issues such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, prejudices in all spheres, social injustice, or mental health. At the same time, however, the series also shows struggles more commonly associated with the lives of adolescents, like dating, prom, arguments and miscommunication between them and their parents/friends, or worrying about further education and life after high school graduation; essentially creating a balance between the heavy topics covered and those that might be expected more in a show like this. Despite these efforts, one question still remains – how realistically does the show paint the portrait of the life of today’s teenager?
TV shows telling stories about teenagers are nothing new. On the contrary, it could be claimed that they have become a relatively stable part of what channels and streaming platforms offer to their, primarily young, audiences, at least from the beginning of the twenty-first century. In fact, Judy Berman of the Time magazine even asks “Is Netflix as dependent on Gen Z as Gen Z is on Netflix?”. She discloses worries that because of the platform’s huge impact on the younger generations, reflected in the number of subscribers and the popularity of certain shows and movies, Netflix will focus more and more on this target group, leaving out the rest of the population. She mentions multiple teen dramas released by the platform that have enjoyed significant attention in recent years, such as 13 Reasons Why, Sex Education or It’s the End F***ing World, and suggests that her worries might become reality in the future. The considerable number of teen series and their success imply that there has to be something that draws such big audiences to them. Whether the reason for that is an authentic portrayal of what has meant to be a teenager over the decades or not might perhaps be too subjective of a question. The answer would not only depend on the specific individual asked, but multiple other things would have to be taken into account, such as their background, geography, culture, environment, or even their personal interests and beliefs. Writing for the Yale Daily News, Iodine Rhodes questions the relevance of such inquiries by proposing it might be too difficult a task, if not impossible: “Is there any accurate way to represent adolescence when teenagers themselves are so malleable, ephemeral and full of contradictions?” Nevertheless, it is clear that teen dramas obviously provide something desirable to the market and Grand Army is no different.
The nine episodes of Grand Army give a relatively limited space for the creators to tell a captivating story, and yet they not only manage to tell one, but five, grippingly intertwined with each other. Shedding light on important and not always pleasant topics ensures the show’s value that cannot be denied even if its other aspects are questioned. It definitely deserves its spot among the better options found on Netflix, or, ultimately, on all streaming platforms for that matter, because it is not afraid to discuss issues the majority of society perceives as taboo.