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Syfy’s addictive Deadly Class is like Harry Potter with prison gangs and the Yakuza

Deadly Class’s stellar young cast can make you forget some of its misfires.

Lana Condor and Benjamin Wadsworth in Deadly Class.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

One of the greatest lies told to children is that high school will be the best time of their lives. The only people who say this, or have an affection toward those dreadful years, are the sad souls who peaked in high school.

Syfy’s new teen drama Deadly Class is quite clear about that. There is no illusion that high school is some great time. And to drive home just how nightmarish high school and adolescence can be, the show injects literal murder (not the “sexy” kind of Riverdale murder that brings everyone closer together), poison, hazing, Ronald Reagan, a dystopian version of San Francisco in 1987, and the ingestion of rat parts into the mix.

Based on a 2014 comic by Rick Remender and Wes Craig (Remender is also the new series’ showrunner and executive producer), Deadly Class plays with the well-worn and very successful trope of a school for gifted youngsters. The X-Men, Harry Potter, and the show’s fellow Syfy series The Magicians have all explored that territory.

But what sets Deadly Class apart is that King’s Dominion, its academy for gifted youngsters, is actually a finishing school for the children of the world’s most ruthless murderers, warlords, crime syndicates, mafia members, and gangsters.

Just like the Harry Potter kids learn about spells and the X-Men test themselves in the Danger Room, these kids learn the ways of evil: how to use poison, physical combat, and psychology to their advantage. There is no magic, nor are there mutant abilities, it’s just a bunch of kids learning how to maximize their potential malfeasance.

The show follows Marcus, a new student, as he attempts to not only survive the dark trauma of high school, but also literally survive in a school full of killers.

The people you’ll find yourself rooting for on this show, including Marcus, won’t necessarily come out alive. And with those who do survive, you might not necessarily like who they’ve become.

Still, around halfway into Deadly Class’s first episode (Syfy sent out the first four episodes fo review), I began to fantasize about my chances of survival (an honest assessment of my potential for subterfuge and middling physical prowess has convinced me that I’d last around 18 minutes — 12 of which would probably be spent complaining) in the show’s grim world.

The show isn’t perfect. Sometimes a grisly bit of writing rears its head. And for a show so clearly infatuated with irreverence and intrigued by hipness, it’s surprising that it isn’t more self-aware of its nihilistic protagonist’s self-importance and self-seriousness.

But the true dark magic of Deadly Class is that it indulges in a power fantasy of being powerful, being evil, and going unpunished. The show functions as a reassurance that good people like you and me, okay you more than me, might not thrive at a place like King’s Dominion, because we’re not willing to sell our souls.

But it also dares to ask: If the real world is full of corporate monsters and criminal masterminds, why not get even? Why not join them? Why not define justice and good on your own terms?

It’s a tantalizing fantasy that’s helped along by Remender and his crew’s stylish world-building, as well as a stellar young cast that includes the winsome Lana Condor, the star of Netflix’s breakaway summer hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Deadly Class is like if Battle Royale took place at Hogwarts

Deadly Class, like the comic it is based on, centers on the life of Marcus Lopez Arguello. Arguello (played by Benjamin Wadsworth) is an orphan who blames the death of his parents on Ronald Reagan.

In the real world, early in his first term, Reagan and Congress dramatically slashed federal mental health funding by 30 percent. These cuts have a ripple effect in the world of Deadly Class, kicking off a chain of events that leaves Arguello parentless and living on the streets.

Now Marcus wants to kill Reagan because of the president’s socio-economic policies.

Wadsworth is fantastic in the role. He looks like the kind of heartthrob that bubblegum pop songs are made about, but plays Marcus with a cerebral chill. In Wadsworth’s able hands, you can almost trace Marcus’s damage in his expressions.

By some twist of fate, Marcus is admitted to King’s Dominion, where criminals send their kids to thrive in malevolence. It’s unclear exactly why he’s been granted admission or why Headmaster Lin (Benedict Wong), who’s running the school, has a vested interest in Marcus. It could very well be that Lin has his own selfish plan.

It’s there he meets Saya (Lana Condor), a daughter of one of the most powerful families in the Yakuza; Maria (María Gabriela de Faría), a death-dealer who was adopted into a Mexican crime family; Billy (Liam James) a boy with an abusive family; and Willie (Luke Tennie) who is the son of West Coast gangster (slight changes have been made to some of the characters’ comic book stories and relationships to Marcus).

Saya and the rest of that crew belong to the different factions — the Yakuza, the Mexican Cartels, the LA Gangsters — that run the school’s social scene. There are also neo-Nazis, and other groups with criminal legacies. Each clan has its own rules of behavior regarding who they’re allowed to speak to and who they need to watch out for.

The racist neo-Nazis hate everyone, sure. But where’s the common ground between the Yakuza and the Cartels? Would the two ever team up to take the others out? And exactly how low on the criminal totem pole are those who don’t belong to any tribe?

As an adult who loves a good high school clique origin story, Deadly Class’s metaphor that cliques are necessary for high school survival is something I’m down for.

Divided by race and criminal activity, the kids of Deadly Class exhibit a similar spirit to the kids in works like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. The most insidious aspect of those teenage dystopian fairy tales is the way they seduce their audience into figuring out their own kill strategies and indulging in the taboo desire to treat these stories like teenage adventures rather than the horror stories they are. And after watching just a few episodes of Deadly Class, I’ve already figured who I’d kill first and who I’d want in my alliance.

Deadly Class is shocking, but it suffers from a lack of self-awareness

Deadly Class operates with a shock factor. Not many teen television shows today are willing to fantasize about the assassination of Ronald Reagan. The same can be said for the show’s B-tier character Brandy, a neo-Nazi Southern Belle who is also King’s Dominion’s head cheerleader. And some critics have already decried the show’s politics, arguing that it glamorizes Nazis and resorts to racial stereotypes for nonwhite characters.

But the letdown of the show, for me, has less to do with morally heinous characters of color existing at a morally heinous school, or with the inclusion of neo-Nazis in its story (the real world has taught us that neo-Nazis do, indeed exist). Rather, I’m disappointed in its occasional lack of awareness and thoughtfulness beyond that initial moment of shock.

Brandy is a one-note, capital-R racist who does racist things like tell derogatory jokes about Latinos and drop the occasional slur.

Although she’s exhibiting appalling behavior, wouldn’t there be something more sinister about Brandy, or about any controversial character, if there was more room for the unexpected? (There’s a mention that Brandy possibly sleeps with nonwhite men in Deadly Class’s first episode, so perhaps Brandy’s psychology will be revisited in the future?)

Or perhaps the show could be as blistering and terrifying as it wants to be if it really leaned into how popular and charismatic a character like Brandy could be, despite her heinous beliefs?

It’s also a strange ride watching Master Lin sell the school to Marcus. He waxes poetic about how Marcus has the potential to change the world with his malevolence, going on and on about how evil is just as capable of making a positive difference in the world.

But King’s Dominion stresses the importance of discipline and conformity to the rules without anyone ever fully acknowledging how rigid evil’s requirements can be. The show could stand to be more brutal in showing us how easily we program our children to do whatever we want, and how children are trained to please their parents.

The show’s penchant for shock also manifests itself in lengthy, narrated monologues.

“That’s all we are now: gangs of capitulating assholes,” Marcus says during one of these dreaded spiels. “Every border, every nation, every war, every ounce of racism, every religion — tribalism. Spineless politicians hypnotically finger-fucking …” — it goes on for a bit more, but you get the gist.

Though Deadly Class’s source comic was created in 2014, some of the show’s subject matter — authoritarian government, tribalism, the rise of white supremacy, and the clashing of generations — will feel relevant to anyone who’s followed American politics for the past few years. (In a recent interview, Remender told me that one of the only major changes that he and his team made in adapting the comic for 2019 was to eliminate guns at the school, in light of how commonplace gun violence is today.)

I understand these types of interior monologues or interludes work brilliantly on the pages of comic books, but they don’t translate as well into live-action television. They feel like dated imitations of the writer Bret Easton Ellis, or something Fight Club’s Tyler Durden would say.

For a show that obviously wants to provoke viewers with its edge, I’m a bit surprised that Deadly Class isn’t more self-aware about how these monologues come off. If the show is telling us to fuck authority, then why should we listen to Marcus’s rants? Why not completely disregard what Marcus has to say? His nihilistic, Holden Caulfield-esque angry high school riffs seem exactly like the type of thing Deadly Class should be making fun of.

Deadly Class’s impressive and talented cast is its strongest weapon

Hands down, one of the most compelling things about Deadly Class is its cast. Though Wadsworth is at the center of the show, he’s surrounded by an excellent ensemble that dazzles amid the story’s darkness. Condor, thanks to her turn as Lara Jean in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, is the most recognizable young actor in the bunch. She’s now playing the complete inverse of Lara, as the stoic and airless assassin Saya.

Saya is the best student at King’s Dominion. She shows no emotions, and rides a motorcycle. She protects Marcus from harm and wears black. She reminds Marcus of how tough he needs to be to survive this school, and how to play by its rules.

If Deadly Class were following the rules of a traditional teen television series, Saya would be the bad-boy boyfriend who can’t be tamed. And Condor seems to be having fun showing off her impressive range.

De Faria, James, and Tennie each play their characters with heart too. De Faria’s Maria is cunning, leaving you guessing as to which side she’s truly on (hint: in most cases she’s looking out for own best interest). And James’s Billy gets a shiver-inducing scene in an early episode that asks stark questions about mental illness, abuse, and violence, one that James pulls off with grace. Tennie, in the episodes I’ve screened, hasn’t yet had the same opportunities as his fellow cast members, but he still displays impressive skill in balancing toughness and surprising vulnerability as Willie.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the strongest parts of Deadly Class allow this talented cast to lean into the show’s soapy, sudsy elements and remind us that these are teenagers dealing with teenage drama.

The show has a natural romance between Marcus and Saya (and possibly others who may get in the way down the line) and a natural operatic conflict in both of these lovebirds choosing to live lives of crime. It’s only natural to assume that their interior conflict, or maybe a love triangle with Maria, will strain their relationship.

The horrors of high school dances, the ominous feeling of walking into the cafeteria at lunchtime and having nowhere to sit, the joy of finding friendship in what feels like a hopeless place — Deadly Class manages to tap into these genuine moments exceedingly, well too.

As sardonic and irreverent as it aims to be, I love that Deadly Class never shortchanges the anxiety and fears of being a teen, and the cast really nails their performances of those feelings. This sometimes results in lengthy narration that I could live without. But it also pays off with stories like Billy’s, or the unmistakable spark between Marcus and Saya.

Of course, high school isn’t the greatest time of your life. But the good stuff in Deadly Class happens when it acknowledges that it’s important nonetheless.

For a show whose title alludes to the killers within its student body, as well as their mortality rate, it genuinely loves its characters. And there’s enough here to keep watching, to see which ones make it out of King’s Dominion alive.