Synopsis (via SyFy):
DEADLY CLASS follows a disillusioned teen recruited into a storied high school for assassins. Maintaining his moral code while surviving a ruthless curriculum, vicious social cliques, and his own adolescent uncertainties may prove fatal. Set against the backdrop of late 80s counter culture, DEADLY CLASS is a coming of age journey unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Based on the smash hit comic series of the same name by Rick Remender.
Benjamin Wadsworth, Lana Condor, María Gabriela de Faría, Luke Tennie, Liam James, Michel Duval, Benedict Wong, Erica Cerra, Henry Rollins, Sean Depner, Siobhan Williams, Taylor Hickson, Jack Gillett, Juan Grey
Deadly Class is a show that defies description. On the one hand, it’s like a manic Harry Potter, complete with a school full of kids with special skills, uniforms, and a mysterious headmaster. Except the school is what Hogwarts would be like if the Slytherins ran everything.
On the other hand, it’s an anarchist’s dream show, all about toppling the powers that be and setting up a world order that benefited the little guy.
On the other, other hand, it’s the show for the Hot Topic generation of the ’90s and early ’00s (my generation), replete with black, red, and goth overtones. It’s as if the show is My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not Okay” music video turned into a series. Similarly, Deadly Class seems like SyFy’s answer to MCR’s former lead singer Gerard Way’s upcoming Netflix series Umbrella Academy, based on his own goth-punk graphic novel.
As a whole, Deadly Class is just one word: cool. I’m intrigued to see more.
Let’s start with the positives. First, the show full of style. Even though it’s set in 1987, it’s a show that’s not intent on giving us the nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses look at the ’80s, something we often get with ’80s set shows. Instead, it’s giving us the punk version of the ’80s, which is arguably the much more realistic version of the time since the punk aesthetic played on the cultural and economic upheavals that were taking place. The ’80s might have been a time of kitsch and artistic liberties, but was also a time of economic and social inequality and conservatism. The gulf between the haves and have nots led to tons of anger and a desire to uproot those in power who kept all of the riches at the top. It’s this type of anger that drives Marcus to stay at the hidden prep school for killer kids, King’s Dominion.
Because it’s rooted in the counterculture, Deadly Class is far removed from the pastels and neons that we typically think of when we think ’80s. Instead, it’s all black, white and red, similar to Blondie’s first album cover. It’s gritty and distressed, like the Ramones. Even British character Lex (Gillett) is a reference to the punk scene of London. Deadly Class is a show about killing. But it’s also a show that reflects how cool the counterculture was and still is.
Because it’s a show all about the underdog, it makes sense that the majority of the characters are people of color. Master Lin (Wong), the headmaster of the school, leads the pack. I’ve been waiting for Wong to get a role that demands all of his acting abilities, and this role is tailor-made for him. He’s a mercurial, refined, deadly killer who also has an interest in (what he believes is) bettering kids’ lives. This complex character is something any actor would love to sink their teeth into, but Wong truly makes the role sing.
Similarly, Wadsworth as Marcus Lopez gives us a character we want to root for. We find out that he isn’t really the “child killer” the papers have made him out to be; he might have burned down the boys’ home he was forced to stay at after his parents were killed, but he never meant to kill any of the other kids he lived with. He’s haunted by his actions as well as his parents’ deaths, and that burning anger makes him realize–in the most violent of ways–that he actually does have what it takes to make it at King’s Dominion. In short, he’s a kid that wants to do right, but life has dealt him a tough hand. He feels like going to the extreme is the only way he can find his place in the world and find meaning to his life.
Marcus states in the pilot that he’s half Nicaraguan. But before anyone thinks that Wadsworth is perpetrating as a Latinx character, he’s actually part Mexican. According to his biography, he’s of “Mexican, English, Native American, Iranian, French, and Swedish ancestry.”
Other characters of color include Condor as Saya, a Yakuza’s daughter, Tennie as Willie, the son of a Watts-area gangster family and Maria and Chico (de Faría and Duval), a couple who come from Mexican cartel families. When we first meet these characters, they are in terms of stereotypes. In fact, POC and white characters alike are sketched out in terms of stereotypes; Brandy Lynn (Williams) and her gang, the Dixie Mob, are the offspring of the KKK and southern skinheads and Russian student Viktor (Depner) is the epitome of what 1980s Americans thought of when it came to the Soviet Union.
But we soon find out that there’s more to these characters than meets the eye. For instance, Willie would rather be a pacifist and doesn’t have the stomach to kill anyone. Saya seems conflicted for reasons we don’t yet know. Maria takes some sort of prescription pills (probably for seizures, if my research on the specific medication she took is correct). Marcus surprises Willie, the audience and himself when he realizes he can be a killer.
My belief is that we are introduced to the stereotypes these characters represent because the show (and I presume the graphic novel) is skewering ’80s cultural beliefs, which weren’t entirely as sophisticated as we’d like to assume. Just think back to characters like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, or Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit, or the entire premise of Soul Man. Race was still the butt of the joke. So, in that respect, it makes sense that we’re introduced to blunt looks at these characters before we peel back the layers. I’m hoping the show really takes these stereotypes apart and investigates how they often allow us to bypass the humanity–the real person–within.
Even the school itself is an interesting dissection of POC pain and trauma. As Lin stated in the episode, this school is for the oppressed to learn how to fight back against their oppressors. In fact, the school itself was built on Lin’s ancestor’s pain. His ancestor came to America from China in the 1800s to make a better life for himself, but was met with racism and violence. In order to get back at those who ruined his life, he killed them and founded this school for others like him who were at the mercy of white supremacy. I think this angle, dissecting and analyzing the anger of the oppressed, is actually really interesting.
Too often, we see noble dignity and suffering in narratives about race, but rarely do we see actual, seething anger. There’s a lot about the dominant culture’s fear of the angry minority that has to do with this “noble sufferer” narrative, but I won’t get into that right now. What’s important to think about is how little discussion there is about the anger the oppressed feel but are made to suppress. Of course in the real world, this anger won’t play out in terms of killing–that’s where Deadly Class is an exaggeration. But, it is fascinating that the show aims to grapple with the anger of the oppressed at all. This brings a much-needed level of substance to all the style Deadly Class presents.
There are some parts of the episode I didn’t particularly love. Those two parts in particular have to do with Saya and Maria being the counterbalances in Marcus’ love life. When we are introduced to these characters in depth, it’s largely to simply establish them as objects in Marcus’ mind. Saya is the cool, mysterious girl in school he might not ever obtain, while Maria is the girl who is basically throwing herself at him for his attention. The very first time we meet Maria, it’s when she’s in her Day of the Dead costume, leading me to think back to the countless times I’ve read Mexican-Americans say how tired they are of Americans taking the Day of the Dead and turning it into another form of exotic objectification of Mexican culture.
Again, clearly there are some underlying motives for their actions. Even though Saya kissed Marcus to convince him to stay King’s Dominion, she later says it was an assignment from Lin. We see at the end of the episode that she gets quite a few secret assignments from Lin, so who knows how much stuff she will have to do to help Lin realize his master plan regarding Marcus.
Maria, on the other hand, gets Marcus interested enough in her for him to want to fight her battles with Chico. In fact, she manipulates him with her charms and schemes (which includes smudging makeup to look like a black eye) to get Marcus nearly killed in a fight with Chico. You have to wonder why she she’s chosen Marcus to do this. I also wonder what’s behind Chico’s facade of machismo. Do he and Maria play this cat-and-mouse game for their relationship, or Maria really trying to get away from Chico?
However, despite the clear threads to deeper things, I hope we see more growth for these characters beyond being exotic objects for Marcus to lust over. I’m interested enough in the series to keep watching, so fingers crossed these girls rise to the occasion. I have high hopes.
This isn’t entirely a negative, but I do have one thought: How do the Dixie Mob figure into all of this? If King’s Dominion is a school for the oppressed to learn how to defeat their oppressors, who are the Dixie Mob trying to go after? Do they want to start a race war? Why would Lin allow them entry into the school? Perhaps it’s just to beat them up and apply his own form of passive-aggressive vengeance. You saw how he hit Brandy’s nose with his cane so hard her nose bled. He must derive some kind of pleasure from it. We’ll have to put a pin in this for now.
Overall, Deadly Class feels smart, stylish and cool despite its scary violence. If you’re squeamish like me, you’re going to have your ears covered some of the time, but despite that, it’s a show that will ring the new year in with a rebel yell.
Deadly Class premieres on SyFy Jan. 16 at 10/9c.