Grand Army: A Review

Maxine Como , Scarlet Staff

Grand Army is the latest teen drama put out by Netflix. It follows the journey of five students in the fictional Grand Army High School in Brooklyn, New York. The show tackles issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, sexual assault, homophobia, xenophobia, slut-shaming, poverty, mental health, and Black Lives Matter, perhaps in an overambitious sense. However, the creators of the show do an excellent job of portraying modern teenagers. Unlike most television, the actors playing teens are actual teenagers from the Greater NY area. This helps the show’s authenticity in portraying what it’s like to be a NYC teen.

High school applications in New York City are unique from everywhere else in the country. For many students, they are more complicated and confusing than college applications. New York City students have the option of applying to any public school in the city, regardless of distance. Schools fall into three different categories; specialized schools, performing arts schools, and non-specialized schools. In each category, applicants carefully rank where they apply. Requirements are different for every school; specialized high schools require students to score well on the Specialized High School Admissions Test or SHSAT, known affectionately by students as “SHATS”.

The test is designed to test students’ readiness for high school with topics like grammar, revising sentences, algebra, and geometry. Often, these subjects aren’t covered in middle school, making it nearly impossible to score well on the SHSAT without a tutor or prep class to help students prepare. 

The SHSAT has been accused of being classist and racist as many demand for it to be replaced by a fairer system. One of the most competitive and well-known specialized high schools in New York City is Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant made headlines last year when it was brought to light that out of the nearly 900 seats available, only 7 black students were offered. 

The fictional Grand Army school is meant to represent a school like Stuyvesant High School, where students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are given a clear advantage to admittance; encompassed by the larger income disparity in NYC. Producers of the show used Brooklyn Technical High School, another specialized high school as a model.

Grand Army is racially segregated in several ways, not unlike many public high schools in NYC. The basketball teams are almost entirely composed of black students while the dance team is mostly white. Black students fall victim to the school-to-prison pipeline, despite their talent and academic success. And in true NYC public high school fashion, the administration fails to address any of it.

Specialized high schools often also come with a higher degree of competition when it comes to college applications. The pressure of admission to an ivy league university or highly-ranked university is almost tangible in the halls of one of the eight specialized high schools. Beginning in freshman year, all sights are set on college as students begin building an impressive portfolio of activities. In order to look like a well-rounded student to colleges, one must be involved in several clubs, show leadership qualities, have good grades, and have productive summers full of internships, jobs, and volunteering.

Grand Army brings the tension of college apps to the forefront. One of the main characters, Siddhartha, known by his peers as Sid, portrays the perfect student and athlete with his heart set on Harvard. When he is deferred by his dream school, his guidance counselor advises that he write a letter to the admissions board at Harvard to reconsider his application. Burdened with the stress of writing the perfect letter, Sid discloses in his essay that he is gay, although he is yet to come out. The letter is later exposed to the entire school and later Sid’s very traditional family. 

While this is a dramatization, it reveals the dark truth behind college essays.The writing section is designed for colleges to get to know more about the applicant beyond their stats. Students writing their personal statements often feel the need to expose their trauma or secrets to gain admission to college. Colleges want their applicants to get personal in their writing, but fitting your childhood trauma or sadness for a loved one passing or experiences with bullying into 650 words isn’t productive. To the teenager who has just poured out their heart into an essay, maybe even written about something they haven’t told anyone like Sid, a rejection or deferral means that it wasn’t enough.

Colleges have never shied away from telling applicants where they fall short academically, rightfully so as this is part of the application process. However, as Grand Army has skillfully portrayed, Colleges have expanded their mandate to determine whether applicants are interesting or even “human” enough to be considered to attend. 

The pressure that comes with specialized high school is often placed on students of color like Sid. Grand Army tends to focus on the social lives of its white characters, like main character Joey and her struggles with slut-shaming and sexual assault. But the students of color at Grand Army all seem to have their own academic struggle or outside experience that affects their school life. This juxtaposition highlights the segregation within the student body. In real life, students of color are most at risk of failing classes, dropping out, and ending up in prison. Instead of providing support systems for students, rules of “zero tolerance” are in place that guarantee that one slip up can ruin a student’s entire academic career. The pressure is mainly placed on impoverished students who can’t throw away a chance at improving their situation. 

Grand Army depicts a real specialized high school in all its glory and dysfunction, which makes for great television. It stands apart from most other teen shows that take place in a high school because of its realisticness. Although some of the plot comes across as crowded and heavy-handed, the show is above average for a teen show, which by nature tend to be awkward and out-of-touch.