'Deadly Class': TV Review
Syfy's new comic adaptation about a high school for future assassins has a flashy, violent fun surface and little going on underneath.
Unquestionably flashy, unquestionably stylish, unquestionably audacious within a very familiar standard of what constitutes audacity, Syfy's new graphic novel adaptation Deadly Class represents Peak Angry Young Man TV. Tailor-made for subreddits and other dark pockets of disaffected youth in that brief window between idolizing Holden Caulfield and discovering Ayn Rand, it is also glib and nihilistic and derivative. In short, Deadly Class is a show to be loved and then hastily outgrown. Fortunately, the four episodes sent to critics offered more than enough time to do both.
Adapted by Rick Remender & Miles Orion Feldsott from the Image Comics series by Remender and Wesley Craig, Deadly Class is the story of Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth), a disaffected youth roaming the rough streets of San Francisco circa 1987 in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed his boy's home, an inferno he may have started. Homeless, he finds himself on the run from the law and from the city's indigent population when he's rescued by katana-wielding badass Saya (Lana Condor). Saya is operating on behalf of Master Lin (Benedict Wong), who gives Marcus the chance to attend King's Dominion, a private school training future assassins for the likes of the yakuza, the Dixie Mob, Mexican drug cartels, Los Angeles street gangs and more. Marcus may not be the killer his reputation suggests, but he sees King's Dominion as an opportunity to gain the skills necessary for his ultimate goal: killing Ronald Reagan, whom he blames for the death of his parents and the decline of the mental healthcare system in the U.S.
If Deadly Class sounds like the latest story to take the John Hughes high-school movie model and run it through a gender-twisting blender, you're correct. And if you feel like we've gotten entirely too many of those genre twists in the past couple years, you're probably also right. We've seen the high-school genre expand to includes schools for wizards, witches, magicians and the hodgepodge of supernatural elements receiving a fine private education in The CW's Legacies. That the Deadly Class pilot was directed by Lee Toland Krieger, who also handled pilots for Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is an argument that we and Krieger have both reached a temporary saturation point on revisionist high-school storytelling.
The pilot for Deadly Class is not its problem. Krieger brings a wicked sense of anarchy, especially to the opening minutes which involve an unexpected PCP trip, a Ronald Reagan cameo and treatment of 1980s San Francisco as a dystopic nightmare of Reagan's making. The obligatory lunchroom introduction of each of the King's Dominions cliques is done with some winking style, as are the first appearances for various classes like AP Black Arts and a poisoning workshop taught by Henry Rollins! It moves fast enough that you can initially ignore that most of the characters are presented as wisps and stereotypes and that our alleged protagonist is a wishy-washy emo pill constantly opining banalities like, "Happiness is just the absence of pain" without a trace of irony. The pilot, which also introduces the animated flashback sequences that represent easily the series' best element, presents enough potential plot avenues and appropriately satirized '80s targets to offer hope that Deadly Class would turn out to be more than a bloody high-school goof with the profundity of a freshman's depressive diary scribblings.
It mostly does not, though I wholly expect that to be more than enough for some viewers.
Three episodes further along, the examination of '80s era moral decay has gone the way of Betamax, replaced with rickety takeoffs on standard high-school soap episodes including That Episode With a School Dance and That Episode That's a Takeoff on The Breakfast Club, all accompanied by a terrifically eclectic '80s soundtrack that punctuates the show's wanton violence with such utter glee that Marcus' "Look at me, I read Nietzsche and Sartre, or at least their Cliffs Notes!" philosophizing offers almost a leveling effect. Almost. I still can't find great enthusiasm for a show in which the main character can't get deeper than voiceovers like, "Humans need to suffer. That's how we know we're alive. All we really are is a compilation of damages." But man, Deadly Class thinks Marcus is insightful!
The series' general treatment of Marcus is so erratic and wants so badly to have it all ways — brooding sociopath or misunderstood, well-intentioned dreamer? You decide! — that I can't really blame Wadsworth for a performance that decides to be the still, pouting center surrounded by chaos. Because Marcus is a "rat" — a student without an affiliation to an established crime syndicate — he's also the character who doesn't have a clear archetype to fall back on. His classmates definitely do and the actors only sometimes can escape those stereotypes to do anything different. Jack Gillett offers a caricature of a London '80s punk; Michel Duval does the same for a cartel gangbanger; Sean Depner for a Russian mobster of some sort. Taylor Hickson gives one of the better performances, as a brooding goth, though she cheats a little since her character's animated flashback is great enough to develop sympathy on its own. Condor will get a lot of credit because Saya is so different from her breakout character in To All the Boys I've Loved Before and she's definitely fun. The characters are all play-acting to some degree — I'm not oblivious to the lessons taught by The Breakfast Club — and I think most of the superficial performances are completely intentional.
The series' best performance and its most interesting character, and this is by a wide margin, comes from Rollins, whose poisons instructor offers the only grounding suggestion of how a King's Dominion could function in the real world, what its practical applications and aspirations might be. Every time his character is able to articulate the rot in the system, the show transitions to a truncated scene of "Gee whiz!" giddy action that illustrates both the limitations of the budget and the creators' ideology.
Because probably Deadly Class does view Rollins' character as the story's hero. And maybe it does understand that Marcus' worldview is infantile and one he needs to outgrow. Possibly it's a show that knows it needs to outgrow its own sense of what's awesome. Conceivably it's a show that's luring viewers into embracing its dead-ended flashiness, before offering a perceptive slap-in-the-face. After four episodes, Deadly Class is still trying to please everybody, which I found increasingly less pleasing.
Cast: Benjamin Wadsworth, Benedict Wong, Lana Condor, María Gabriela de Faría, Luke Tennie, Liam James, Michel Duval
Creators: Adapted by Rick Remender & Miles Orion Feldsott from the comic series by Remender and Wesley Craig
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Syfy)