Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
“Name one Cure B-side,” one of the students of “Deadly Class” challenges another, the classic purity test in which someone desperate to craft a personality around what they like asks another person to prove whether or not they’ve successfully done the same. The accused does not respond with a B-side. Instead, he drops that it’s his dead sibling that loved The Cure, and they are dead. A third tries to empathize and apologize, saying he didn’t know about the very dead sibling, and the second student responds by sneering that the third could never have known because they exist on, ahem, very different social planes. One is not cool enough to know “Adonais.” One is not cool enough to know about the dead brother. The first is just kind of an asshole. Not one of them has put much thought into the exchange—and it’s that that makes it a perfect example of the squandered potential of “Deadly Class,” a series that inches toward dark comedy and feints world-building but mostly just goes through the motions.
That’s not to say it’s totally unenjoyable. Quite the contrary. There’s plenty in Syfy’s latest, an adaptation of the Image comic series of the same name, to engage, provided you like any of the following: pictures of animals used instead of sentences; “The Breakfast Club”; katanas; people saying things like “All I have left are memories of sunshine,” “I don’t believe in God, but I’m a hypocrite,” and “Civility’s just lying to people about your true feelings” with a straight face; Benedict Wong; the “boarding school, but make it exxxtra sexy and dangerous” vibe of “The Magicians” with none of the self-deprecation; moose-and-squirrel Russian accents; deep-cut needle drops; blazers; the word “rat”; the scene in every high school movie where a fellow nerd explains where all the different cliques sit and points out the alphas; Henry Rollins; poisons; shit-talking Ronald Reagan; bestiality; serfdom; “Carrie”; childhood trauma; and Lana Condor. Some of these things are great. But here’s something you won’t find: structural thoughtfulness, evolving relationships, exploration of any of the ideas presented, or finely drawn characters.
It’s that last one that really hurts. It’s the one shortcoming that can’t be dismissed in service of sitting back to simply enjoy the scattered but undeniable pleasures found throughout. And it’s a fatal flaw, because the whole point of living vicariously through high school again is that you get to peel back the “B-sides,” posturing, and tropes to see what lies beneath. These are exactly the sort of characters, in exactly the kind of place, where such exploration should be thrilling. We enter with Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth) a homeless kid with a dangerous reputation recruited to King's Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts by Saya (Condor), an aloof, deadly overachiever with ties to the Yakuza. Marcus gets the hard sell on this elite high school for would-be stone-cold killers from Master Lin (Wong), who has complicated feelings about the family business. He immediately makes a friend of sorts in the spirited Maria (María Gabriela de Faría) and an enemy in her abusive boyfriend Chico (Michel Duval) before finding a home with mohawked joker Billy (Liam James) and the other non-legacy “rats,” and with Willie (Luke Tennie), an intimidating figure with whom Marcus makes an unexpected connection. Henry Rollins teaches them all about poison.
I watched four episodes of “Deadly Class” for this review, yet with startlingly few exceptions, I know nothing more about those characters, or the others in the story, than described above. I might actually know less about the women—the men are, at least, relatively consistently drawn, but the women change to suit the story as needed. How obliging.
None of that is the fault of the uniformly game cast, who do the best they can with material that ranges from “weird, but fun” to “distressingly hollow," t more toward the former than the latter. Example: At one point a dad tells his son, “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal,” right before dying in a horrific freak accident, and there’s no trace of a wink, yet outside of blaming Ronald Reagan for the death of his parents (to be fair, he’s got a point) this piece of backstory goes almost completely unexplored. That’s in keeping with the series as a whole—an interesting story, idea, or theme will be introduced; the characters hand-wave at it, and it’s like it never happened. While most detrimental to character development, it’s nearly as frustrating with regard to story. Take the episode where the students are locked into a hallway that slowly fills with poison gas and told to get to a certain room and answer a riddle in exchange for the antidote. Sounds like a great episode set-up, right? It’s done in under 15 minutes, including a beat where one character considers letting another die by simply choosing not to save him. It happens, it’s over, and all that might make it interesting has gone.
The same, to a certain extent, is true of the show’s visual language, though in this case the scattered, unfocused energy actually serves the story. Director Lee Toland Krieger, who helms the pilot, seems to excel in creating a world that seems to be both firmly rooted in and existing outside of a specific time (he also directed the pilots for “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” “Riverdale,” and “You,” which share this quality); smash cuts and bold titles let us know when we’ve arrived in class, but I have no idea where the dorm rooms are in relation to the classrooms, and where (and how) any of it exists within the restaurant that acts as a front for the school. But that’s good! Visually, sitting down with “Deadly Class” is like sitting down in a giant, dimly lit hotel ballroom, one without windows or clocks. Time loses its meaning, and you could emerge into a snowstorm or a beach and both would make equal sense.
If that sounds promising to you, “Deadly Class” might be up your street. Perhaps you can enjoy the clumsy dialogue and winning performances (particularly from Condor, playing a girl that “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’”s Lara Jean would find extremely confusing) without fretting over the loose threads, faulty logic, and incredibly broad strokes. And it’s possible that these things could improve, once “Deadly Class,” like Marcus, settles into its new situation. There’s certainly a spark from time to time. But for now, “Deadly Class” is failing to live up to its potential. It’s messy and hollow. It’s all a front. I bet it can’t even name a single Cure B-side.
Four episodes screened for review.
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