There's no doubt that "Grand Army" is trying its best.
Adapted by Katie Cappiello from her 2013 play "Slut," Netflix's glossy, gritty new teen drama (now streaming, (★★½ out of four) is trying to say big things about race, gender, classism and poverty. It's also trying to turn an introspective play into an ensemble drama, and to craft an adolescent soap opera from all the politicking and public service announcements. It's trying to do so much that it occasionally gets in its own way, and is bogged down by extraneous storylines and buzzwords.
If you strip back some of the excesses, there's a gripping teen drama there somewhere. When you find it, "Army" is exquisite. But the show can be a slog when it loses its way.
"Army" follows five teens at the fictional Grand Army High School, which brings together a diverse collection of students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion), a white firebrand feminist with a self-centered kind of activism (who is the main character in "Slut"); Dominique Pierre (Odley Jean), a Black student who has huge potential to succeed but is held back by her need to provide for her Haitian family; Siddhartha Pakam, (Amir Bageria), an Indian-American who struggles with his sexual identity; Leila Zimmer (Amalia Yoo), a Chinese American girl adopted by white parents who's desperate to fit in; and Jayson Jackson (Maliq Johnson), a naïve band kid.
In the first episode, set in January, the students' world is rocked by a terrorist attack mere feet from the school, which sets off a chain of interpersonal events that shape the narrative of the season. Joey is criticized by a teacher for wearing revealing clothing; Leila is secretly thrilled when she is added to a lewd list of hot girls; Jayson and his friend Owen (Jaden Jordan) get in trouble; Dominique sees $200 that she needs to help her family stolen; and Sid worries about being considered a terrorist because of his race.
From here the plot gets more complicated and darker. Shades of "Degrassi," and more recently, HBO's "Euphoria" are here, as the series tries to get into the lives of its teen characters. Like "Euphoria," "Army" doesn't shy away from the underbelly of modern teen life, including drug use, sexual assault, bullying, revenge porn and other risqué activities that terrify the parents of Generation Z.
Jean and A'zion, daughter of "Better Things" star/creator Pamela Adlon, turn in star-making performances as Dom and Joey, the strongest characters with the most consistently effective storylines. A'zion balances a character who is both infuriating and somehow still likable, while Jean ably handles the inner struggle of Dom, who has to constantly adjust her mood and behavior to satisfy her family, the white teachers at school, or her friends.
Apart from those stories is where "Army" falters. Leila is so immensely grating that her appearances stop the show in its tracks (especially when her animated fantasies provide a jarring contrast with the rest of the show). Sid speaks in platitudes and buzzwords about race and sexuality that feel unnatural. Jayson's encounter with the school's disciplinary measures seems more like a morality play than anything that has to do with him or Owen as characters. Here, the big ideas about race and the "school to prison pipeline" are supposed to come out, but there's inauthenticity to the portrayal.
It's frustrating when the "Army" writers get in their own way. But when A'zion or Jean are on screen, the show instantly rights itself, guided by the sheer charisma of the two young actors.
Like so many high school students, "Army" doesn't get straight A's the first time out. But there's room to try again.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Grand Army' review: Netflix tries for its own 'Euphoria'