There was a promo for the CW series Riverdale last year where Cole Sprouse’s Jughead Jones repeats over and over again “I don’t fit in,” ending dramatically with “and I don’t wanna fit in.” You could transpose those sentiments to the lead of Syfy’s Deadly Class, Marcus Lopez Arguello (Benjamin Wadsworth), who doesn’t fit in either. But instead of treating Marcus’ teenage pronouncements that “morality is just comfort food” and that society is made up of “gangs of capitulating assholes” as angsty satire (as Riverdale does with Jughead), Deadly Class takes it all deadly seriously.
Marcus, a homeless, orphaned teen who reportedly burned down the torture-filled boys’ home he had been placed in (killing most of the kids there as a consequence) has been invited to join Kings Dominion, which is basically a school full of Slytherins and Death Eaters. Its leader, Master Lin (Benedict Wong) teaches the kids, most of whom are the children of assassins and mass murderers, how to be better killers. Lin encourages the teens to play God, deciding who lives or dies based on a kind of relative morality (that teenagers would definitely have a very firm handle on). Essentially, the school is creating a legion of Dexters. And yet, despite this quasi-vigilante approach, most of the kids are full of anger and hate — or at least, pretend to be.
Deadly Class (which is executive produced by Joe and Anthony Russo) is based on Rick Remender’s comic book series, and Remender himself is heavily involved in the TV adaptation. Instead of just acting as a consultant, he’s co-showrunning, writing, and producing to make sure that his comic vision comes to life exactly as he wants it to onscreen. Deadly Class is, therefore, extremely faithful to that work, and yet therein lies the problem. Picking up in 1987, Kings Dominion is a school that has prison rules, essentially; viewers learn immediately that the kids are self-divided into racial gangs, most of which are at low-key war with one another. Representatives from each racial group also lean in heavily to stereotypes: Saya (Lana Condor) from a Yakuza gang, is a stealthy sword-wielder; Petra (Taylor Hickson) is a goth from a death cult; Willie (Luke Tennie) is a black student who presents himself as a gun-toting gangbanger; Mexicans Maria (María Gabriela de Faría) and Chico (Michael Duval) are in a cartel clique, with Maria favoring Día de los Muertos makeup and a blade-tipped fan; Brandy (Siobhan Williams) is a Southern belle neo-Nazi.
The list goes on, and each character (save for Saya, thankfully) puts on an ultra-affected accent to underline their stereotypes. This could all still work as satire, but again, Deadly Class is very into disaffected Reagan youth culture and their cynicism. The kids, particularly the “rats” (students like Marcus who don’t come from a legacy pedigree of killers), like to sit on rooftops getting drunk and complaining about a corporatized world and being able to see the truth behind the society’s mask. It’s one step away from having them say, in earnest, “wake up, sheeple!”
To be admitted into Kings Dominion, you need to have psychopathic tendencies and/or a reputation for killing. Though it’s revealed fairly early on that most of the kids aren’t as brutal as they pretend to be, it doesn’t make the premise any easier to get onboard with. Manifesto-inspired dialogue aside (like when Marcus, who accepts going to the school because he reasons “what’s the alternative, suburbia? A fat, pill-popping wife?”), the mantra of “changing the world with a bullet” is pretty much the last thing our society needs at this moment in time, if ever. Kids are changing the world with bullets — and it’s awful.
The series is meant to be in the same edgy class as Syfy’s The Magicians, which it will air back-to-back with, and it’s similarly very stylized with solid production values. The soundtrack is killer, and the actors are all very charming. But there are so many times when the more cartoonish aspects of the series — like a villain who commits beastiality and masturbates to dog shows on TV — feel like they make more sense on the page than onscreen. These hyper-segregated kids and their highly stereotyped dialogue work better in comic form than having them actually say these things out loud in all seriousness, which is proved through animated segments that explain the students’ backstories. There, the voiceover and extreme violence are presented in a way that’s different and far more affecting than what we see performed.
By the end of the show’s first four episodes available for review, the series improves by putting some of its assassin culture plotting away in favor of more relatable teen drama. That’s when the actors gets to really shine, able to finally show more vulnerability and nuance than when they’re trading mean-spirited quips and laughing about poisoning each other. But even then, the series’ dedication to a dark and violent world of murderous impulses — or cultivating them — is a bummer. Deadly Class asks what it takes to change the status quo, but its answer so far is not particularly revolutionary.
Deadly Class premieres Wednesday, January 16th on Syfy.