‘Grand Army’ Is a Portrait of Teenage Self-Discovery and the Hangovers That Follow

Gen Z is already known for beginning to define much of the slogans and movements of its time. Defying gender norms and labels, picking up the banners of woke culture, they embody both youth and progress. But they are still young and prone to all of the brutal learning experiences, quirks and mistakes that come with it. Netflix’s “Grand Army” is another show that reminds viewers that while generations change, human nature does not. Being a teenager is never easy, and cultural shifts simply find new ways to enhance the whole crucible.

“Grand Army” takes its name from the show’s fictional, prestigious Brooklyn public school, the kind where students of various backgrounds are expected to chart glorious futures to partake in American riches. Because this is the arena of high school, the story’s characters are many. But the prime focus is on Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion), a lively dance squad member who begins to espouse feminist ideals via staged protests involving going braless to class. New to the school is Leila (Amalia Yoo), the Chinese adopted daughter of a Jewish family. She feels and hears the scoffs of other Chinese-American students who see her as white, and channels her insecurities in seeking validation through the desires of the males. And of course there are still packs of jocks and hormone-obsessed guys at Grand Army. The school swim team is the local rowdy crew, and since this is the app era, they spend their time making pages like “Bomb Pussy,” where they rate the campus girls. Swim team member Sid (Amir Bageria) refuses to join in, because he has his own closeted battle going on. Dominique (Odley Jean) is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, wishing to get a degree in psychology while also trying to help her family get by. A bombing down the street near campus sets in motion how these and other lives on campus will influence and collide with each other.

There are many character arcs to follow in “Grand Army,” but they are all well fleshed-out, touching on a specific experience that comes with being a modern-day teen. Creator Katie Cappiello is essentially adapting her own work, taking inspiration from her 2013 stage piece, “Slut: The Play.” Although in terms of energy and edge, “Grand Army” is obviously made in the shadow of HBO’s “Euphoria.” While not reaching the full visceral punch of that show, this one is still a blunt, emotional set of portraits. The opening moments of the season sets the tone as Joey helps friend and showboat Grace (Keara Graves) retrieve a lost condom from her vagina, while other girls in the locker room obliviously chant a song. While sex and self-discovery are a natural part of these teens’ world, they go hand in hand with new buzzwords and cultural shifts. Joey protests the rigid attitude of her biology teacher, who during a lockdown following the bombing, chastises Joey for wearing gym shorts. So Joey decides to carry out her own version of the Free the Nipple movement, with friends in solidarity coming braless to school. The directing sometimes emphasizes gender-neutral bathrooms while the dialogue brims with realism in capturing a generation where everyone is now expected to head to college, following pre-set life patterns. 

Yet while “Grand Army” captures the current culture well, it also subverts it. This show is a complete antidote to Netflix’s usual brand of YA entertainment, where teens are as chaste and well-behaved as oil painting Pilgrims. Joey takes a stand for feminism, but is adventurous and open in a way where hormone-driven guys see an advantage. While consent is a major cultural issue these days, Joey still finds herself assaulted through no fault of her own, but because she felt safe partying with some male friends who take it too far. Young or aged, people get carried away by selfishness and base impulses. This occurs in one of the season’s most searing episodes, because when Joey is assaulted her friend, Tim (Thelonius Serrell-Freed), lets it happen out of his own conflicted behavior that night. In some shows friends with romantic tension descend into some flowery fairy tale. Here it all gets wrapped up in nights of terrible choices that can haunt someone forever. The same goes for friends Owen (Jaden Jordan) and Jayson (Maliq Johnson), two Black members of the school orchestra who goof off with Dominique’s wallet, resulting in consequences that will particularly impact Owen’s life. Joey and Jayson will be forced to take different kinds of stances, and make choices to speak out even when it can be nerve-wrecking.

“Grand Army” is not a judgmental show. It’s simply honest about how our behavior patterns, and the darker shades of being human, carry on even in “woke” times. Leila becomes obsessed with one of the swim team members, the unsavory George (Anthony Ippolito), out of a mix of sexual curiosity and seeking validation in a place where girls are still rated in terms of desirability, where porn is consumed by everyone. She also tries to grapple with her cultural confusion by writing essays about Chinese Jews, which inspires more scoffing from the other Asian-American students. But Leila also has a hidden artist inside, and the show will cut to her animated fantasies of the Grand Army world as expressed through a zombie apocalypse. Sid has an identity crisis of a different sort. Coming from a traditional Indian family, where economic ascendance and iron discipline are practically religion, Sid feels more tension from hiding the fact that he’s gay. And after the bombing, his father warns him about how Americans see those of their complexion. 

While this is the kind of show that flirts sometimes with Larry Clark levels of teenage grit, where it departs from forbears like “Euphoria” is in the more recognizably heroic, romanticized tone it does take on by the season finale. Some characters do get into their dream college, or accept their sexuality, justice is meted out to abusers, and Dominique even carries out a corny prom proposal for her season-long crush, John (Alphonso Romero Jones II). Black Lives Matters hovers over an activist storyline involving Jayson and a Black Student Union sit-in. The showrunners even had time to throw in radio news broadcasts about the emergence of Covid-19 in the finale. The final moment of the season is a raised fist, with a cut so abrupt there must be a second season in store.

High school shows and movies are like a chronicle of how every generation functioned. “The Breakfast Club” and “Kids” remain testaments about the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Grand Army” joins shows that seem to frame Gen Z as a particular crop in search of everything, from ideas to believe in to how to perceive themselves. But like every generation before, they also feel the urge to experiment, push the limits and party hard. The characters in this show also learn that timeless lesson that there’s always the threat of a hangover.

Grand Army” season one begins streaming Oct. 16 on Netflix.