SYFY is betting a lot on Deadly Class. The adaptation of Rick Remender and Wes Craig's controversial comicâ€”which is essentially X-Men but with assassinsâ€”released their pilot episode almost a month early online and I have a lot of feelings about it. If you haven't read the '80s-set comic, it's a tropey romp through Reagan-era America that's centered on a school known as King's Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts. Our protagonist is Marcus Arguello, a young boy from Nicaragua who finds himself homeless after his parents die in a freak accident. Struggling to survive on the streets after bombing his orphanage, he ends up being recruited by the kids of King's Dominion. In the comic, that story spans the first issue. In the show, it's the first five minutes.It's hard to properly adapt a comic. Most failed attempts struggle to find their footing when it comes to timing, pacing, and what exactly to adapt. Deadly Class immediately falls into this trap with the first episode, pretty much a direct adaptation of the first few issues, which probably has something to do with the Remender being a major part of the production. The best screen versions of comic books elevate or expand on the source material, and at the very least they restructure it to fit the new medium. But the pilot for Deadly Class' insistence to stick to the original story is ultimately its downfall.
It's not all bad, though, as most of the stars are thoroughly charming. Lana Condor is riveting as Saya; Benedict Wong brings a gravitas and complexity to headmaster Lin that wasn't in the comics; Luke Tennie shines as Marcus' closest friend Willie; it's always nice to see Henry Rollins, who pops up as a professor; and Liam James brings a fire and unpredictability to punk rat Billy. Benjamin Wadsworth's Marcus is a fine Luke Skywalker avatarâ€”though this is very much an ensemble pieceâ€”but he's white passing, which is not the case in the comics. It adds another note of discomfort to the proceedings.It's just a shame that the characters are almost dangerously stereotypical. The comic separates the kids in King's Dominion into groups ostensibly by race; the Japanese Kuroki Syndicate is where Lana Condor's Saya hails, Maria and Chico are part of the established Mexican Soto Vatos, and Willie is a black young man who hails from the Final World Order gang. If the concept was already problematic then the show makes it worse, unable to elevate the characters out of their caricatures, landing dangerously close to racism. It becomes especially uncomfortable when we get to Brandi, who's a Neo-Nazi. Though in the comic she's a generic racist redneck, here she's a sexy, sassy blonde who just happens to be hooking up with Willie. A show stuffed with swastikas and racial stereotypes was always going to be hard to swallow, but in 2018 it feels downright poisonous.If you can look past all of that you'll find a relatively stylish and well-put-together show with an '80s soundtrack that puts you firmly in the era, even if the costumes and set dressing don't always do the same. It's clear there's a lot of love put into this project; it's shiny and filled with passionate performances, but the problem is that the material it's working with just isn't that good, or at least it doesn't transfer well to the screen. Deadly Class has the potential to find an audience with young people, but tonally this series doesn't feel like it knows where it sits in the landscape of teen-focused shows. It doesn't have the outrageous sexiness and absurdity of Riverdale and can't quite offer up the nostalgia-filled slickness of Stranger Things.Still, a lot of this could be put down to the fact that this is a pilot. They're notoriously hard to get right, and there's a lot of space where this show could grow. The core cast of kids is great and hopefully as we get to see more of their personalities outside of their archetypes, the show will become more engaging. Until then, Deadly Class is a very rough prospect with strained pacing, a problematic setup, and just a surface level exploration of the themes it presents.
2 out of 5
Images: SYFY, Image Comics