This review is spoiler-free for all episodes of Deadly Class.
There will be two types of skeptics judging Deadly Class: those who have read the comic and wonder how true the series is to the source material and those who are new to the story asking, “Wait, is this just Harry Potter or The Magicians with assassins?” Fortunately, both groups of cautiously optimistic viewers will be satisfied by Syfy’s adaptation, which premieres on January 16, 2019. In some ways, the comic that inspired this troubled and violent coming-of-age tale has thoroughly invaded the television show, especially in its animated sequences from original artist Wesley Craig, and those seeking a “hidden school for special youth” derivative will find many tropes upended.
That’s not to say that Deadly Class doesn’t have some predictable high school drama conventions. Shows that have teenagers at their core do tend to have stereotypical cliques that work for and against the hero, and this series is no exception. The difference here is that the preps (children of secret government operatives) and nerds (a group called “The Hessians” not found in introductory issues of the comic) are all working against our hero, a scrappy homeless kid with a tragic past, Marcus Lopez. Other social divisions feel more like prison gangs than school cliques with groups of students representing Mexican cartels, white supremacists, and the Yakuza among others.
The life-or-death stakes feel very real in the opulent-but-rundown private school environment of the underground institution known as King’s Dominion. Marcus is recruited because of a murderous reputation he doesn’t necessarily deserve, and he’s not a legacy student from a criminal family like most of the other kids. His outsider status doesn’t make him the awed, grateful student that Harry Potter was upon admission to Hogwarts but rather a suspicious, cynical enrollee who simply has nowhere else to go. The fact that he is immediately embroiled in school drama comes across as inexorable and inescapable rather than as an angsty obstacle to overcome.
But despite the fact that Deadly Class will eventually have Syfy’s popular fantasy, The Magicians, as its lead-in on Wednesday nights, the two shows do not share the same brooding tone. Since this show takes place in 1987 (this writer was a sophomore in high school then, so plenty of feels there), let’s put it this way: the kids of Brakebills are like the progressives (a term that was replaced by “goths” in contemporary times), full of tragic self-doubt and indulgent ennui, whereas the students at King’s Dominion are full-on punk, with all of the angry righteousness and bluster that entails.
Ironically, Marcus hangs out with both goths and punks as the series begins and is evaluated derisively by several gangs, but with class assignments ranging from the poison arts taught by Henry Rollins to AP Black Arts taught by Benedict Wong, the deadly purpose of the school becomes the great equalizer, and as it turns out, Marcus has a knack. He may not be “the boy who lived,” but he’s certainly “the boy with nothing to lose,” which actually may serve him better in this game of survival. The fact that Deadly Class is able to establish this core theme in its opening episode is pretty damn impressive.
Further evaluation of this promising start to a unique series will have to wait for a more spoilery review after the Deadly Class premiere, but everything points to another success for Syfy in their high school and college age target audience. The 80s setting will also appeal to the middle-aged geek set since the original writer of the comic, Rick Remender, who is of that era, is not only in the writer’s room; he’s also co-showrunning his creation with Mick Betancourt of Chicago Fire and Miles Orion Feldsott, who helped adapt the comic.
Wong’s Master Lin almost seems to address the Deadly Class audience at one point in the pilot episode when he asks, “What do you want here, Marcus?” Future fans of the show, who very well may be searching for a series just like this one that will excite their senses, might have the same answer as King’s Dominion’s newest student when they tune in at 10/9c to Syfy on Wednesday, January 16, 2019: “A reason to wake up.”