Comic book writer and artist Rick Remender was 16 when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. It would be another five years before the parents of Generation Z – today’s 24 and younger TV viewers – would begin hooking up and popping out what are now high school and college students and make up the same generation that would, presumably, be the audience of Deadly Class.
The series, about a private school for the violently inclined offspring of top crime families, is Syfy’s TV adaptation of Remender’s graphic novel series set in the late 1980s. The network previewed the series premiere online and on Syfy in December, ahead of the official premiere date in mid-January. The critical response so far has been lukewarm, with IGN reviewer Siddhant Adlakha saying the series “is off to a rocky first semester.”
Some critics have warmed to its potential, however: “It has rude energy (and many bad words) and a certain conviction, and possibly what seem like bugs in its system will prove to be features instead,” Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd wrote.
One of those bugs might be a generational disconnect between writers who hit puberty in the ’80s and went on to anchor the disaffected-youth movement of the grunge period, and an audience that now wears ’80s clothing ironically and is moving incrementally into an “Everything Is Awesome” tech-driven modern workplace.
Deadly Class is an ambitious fiction for Syfy to risk airing now, one that asks a viewership shocked by multiple deadly school shootings in recent years to embrace a story about teens trained in the assassination arts – one is a sword wielder, another’s expertise is poison, and so on.
“It’s one of the more twisted coming-of-age stories you’ve ever read,” filmmaker and producer Joe Russo has said of the graphic novel the series is based on. The Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony, co-directors of Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s upcoming Avengers: Endgame, are executive producers on the series.
Lana Condor, who so recently charmed Netflix subscribers in high-school rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, here plays Saya, master of the katana. Condor told Rotten Tomatoes that series creators Remender and Miles Orion Feldsott took pains to ensure that the violence wasn’t gratuitous and wasn’t gun-based.
“It’s definitely a conversation to have. I think one of the biggest things is, we don’t have any guns in our school,” the 21-year-old actress said. “We absolutely do not and are not promoting any sort of gun violence in schools whatsoever … and it’s very rare that you see violence between the children. A lot of the violence that comes out of our show is either outside of the school, where they genuinely — our villains are quite horrible people. And that part of the show, it’s just a part of television, right?”
True. Deadly Class is certainly not the first fiction to put children in peril: You can thank Charles Dickens for that trend. Or the Old Testament if you want to get Biblical about it (see “Binding of Isaac,” Genesis 22).
On TV, we’ve seen The Gifted on Fox, Impulse on YouTube Premium, AMC’s The Walking Dead, FX anthology series American Horror Story, and another of this week’s releases, teen-vigilante series Wayne from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writer-producer duo behind the Deadpool films. (Speaking of movies, the X-Men films, The Hunger Games series, and virtually every horror film ever regularly threatened their youngest characters, and that’s just not going to change.)
The difference may be that these kids are on the offense and many have very bad intentions. Self-defense is second-nature at King’s Dominion, and its student body isn’t made up of fumbling innocents. They are well-trained and lethal, and takes “jaded” to new levels.
When Rotten Tomatoes recently visited the set, series co-creator Feldsott explained that Master Lin’s (Benedict Wong) great-grandfather founded King’s Dominion as a training ground to help the disenfranchised gain power over their oppressors.
“For Master Lin, one of the big journeys that he has over the course of the season is that he is trying to figure out exactly what he stands for,” he said. “Originally, his great-grandfather had a very noble intention when they founded the school. He was going to give power to the oppressed, and now as time as gone on, that mission has been somewhat corrupted, and now these more powerful organizations are giving their kids training at the academy. So he is having a crisis of conscience in the first season. He’s having this argument with the teacher that Henry Rollins plays, who’s saying, ‘You were different when you were younger. What do you stand for now?’ And there’s also a powerful organization that is above Master Lin that expects him to maintain order in this place.”
Wong, whose recent role as Wong in Marvel blockbusters Doctor Strange and Avengers: Infinity War has put him in front of massive audiences, credits the Russo Brothers for bringing him to the new character.
“I was fortunate to get a call from Joe Russo. He said, ‘Hey, I really want you to be in this,’ and I just immediately said yes, and then said, ‘What? Sorry, what do you want me to be in then?’ Because the brothers have got an incredible pedigree,” Wong told Rotten Tomatoes.
Wong reveals that the influx of criminal organizations have fueled Master Lin’s crisis. It’s also important to remember that it’s fiction.
“We’re in a world that is not like our own world, obviously,” Wong said. “It’s a heightened world, and it’s more about the repercussions of violence, really, and what would happen. We’re in a make-believe world of what would we do if we threw [together] the cartel, the CIA, NASA, and they send their kids to this school, and this man is now having to uphold it all and watch every lid before it flips.”
The young Deadly Class cast members are also clearly thrilled with their roles, even if some of the main characters are described as “rats,” including new student Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth), who is also an orphan. His lack of connections puts him at a disadvantage; he has no formal fight training like his schoolmates, for one, though his life has been hard.
“We’re gonna see how violence has affected Marcus,” Wadsworth promised. “He experiences some forms of psychosis. Trauma does weird things to human beings. They find unhealthy coping strategies like alcoholism, chain-smoking, drug-addiction. So I think it would show that, ‘Hey, you probably don’t wanna do this or you’re gonna get messed up.’”
In a line-up, the students come off as a lethal Breakfast Club.
“Billy is one of the rats at school,” Liam James said of his character, a friendly punk rocker who befriends Marcus, “the people who just have no affiliation. Basically their families aren’t respected crime families, which is, like, apparently you want that.”
Billy is also failing at his assassin classes.
“You’d think he’d pay attention, because it might save his life, but he still doesn’t really. He kind of just uses whatever is closest a lot of the time, but he does love his skateboard so he’s always got it with him,” James said, revealing that his skateboard will be Billy’s weapon of choice, but not exclusively. “There’s a lot of blunt objects.”
Other weapons include deadly bladed fans used by Marcus’ love interest Maria Salazar (María Gabriela de Faría), who is in a relationship with Chico (Michel Duval), a knife-enthusiast. Brandy Lynn (Siobhan Williams), a Kentucky-born daughter of a neo-Nazi methamphetamine dynasty, also hides blades in her cheerleading pompoms.
“Brandy has a very vested interest in pitting these groups against each other,” Feldsott said. “She is a racist scumbag essentially, in a package that seems unassuming for most people. She seems like a southern debutant with a cheerleading uniform and everything, but she’s one of the most nasty and dangerous and violent people in this place.”
So viewers have that to look forward to. There’s also at least one pacifist in the bunch: Willie Lewis (Luke Tennie).
“If Willie could have it his way, he’d be reading comics and making friends,” Tennie said of his character, who comes from a legacy family. “Comics specifically because he loves heroes, but he’s stuck at this academy studying to be a villain.
“Every second of every day for him is about lying. It’s about maintaining this façade — until Marcus. [Willie]’s put in the situation where he tries to break his moral code, fails, and someone witnesses it. He has to tell them the truth. Wasn’t intentional. But now there’s this guy who knows the truth. If somebody knows the truth he doesn’t have to lie. He finds someone he can confide in,” Tennie revealed.
Taylor Hickson, who plays goth girl – and poison expert – Petra, said the unconventional series is a conversation starter at the very least.
“One of my favorite things about this series is that we take stabs at concepts that people are too afraid to touch nowadays. I think there was a lot of shock in where we took some of the characters, and their backgrounds, and their beliefs and morals. We touch base on a lot of heavy content: so drugs and underage kids and violence. But none of the show is to euphemize or glorify any of this dark subject matter,” Hickson said, who said the reaction overall has been positive from fans of the graphic novel series.
“Readers that were already familiar with the comic, they seemed super over the moon as to how the casting went,” she continued. “From what I’m reading online, I think the reaction generally is just, they’re happy that we’re staying so authentic to the ’80s, and to the comic.”
But are the Deadly Class characters ready to be the villains – or “heroes,” depending on your point of view – of a younger TV audience perhaps more in tune with the grunge era they were born into? If nothing else, the series’ frozen-in-time ’80s assassin angst could resonate with older fans with nostalgia for a grousier time.
Deadly Class airs on Wednesdays at 10/9C on Syfy