A hell of a lot has to go right for a television show to be successful in the Year of Too Much TV 2019. Standing out is half the battle, so networks are wisely picking up adapted series from beloved source material that come with built-in recognition. It’s only wise, though, if you’re winning the other half of the battle by producing quality TV. You have to like Syfy’s recent track record in this area; The Expanse, The Magicians, and Happy! all jumped to the small screen, pleasing critics and fans alike. You can’t silence all “it’ll never be as good as the book” people, but a string of hits like that marks an undeniable trend that should have genre fans optimistic that the network’s next adaptation, Deadly Class, is worth the rising cost of tuition.
Based on the ongoing Image comics series from creator/writer Rick Remender, Deadly Class revolves a group of kids who attend Kings Dominion, a school that trains assassins and enlightens the youth of the world’s top crime families, albeit with a strict moral code and a stern headmaster played by Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange). Set against the angsty and politically charged backdrop of 1987, the series stays faithful to the comics by following Marcus (played by Benjamin Wadsworth), an outsider with a traumatic past who escapes the streets to enroll in the academy, though it has more room on the small screen to explore the lives of his classmates.
Deadly Class skillfully plays with what can sometimes be a double edged sword; maintaining the tone of its source material while simultaneously expanding the universe beyond the print world of the comics. A key part of Syfy’s recent successes has been the active involvement by the authors of the source material – often as creative consultants. Remender is involved with the project on a deeper level, serving as co-showrunner and lead writer for the series. His co-showrunner and executive producer Miles Feldsott took some time between takes on the series’ Vancouver set to chat with Den of Geek about adapting the comics, using violence as a metaphor, and how the series will show us a version of the ‘80s we don’t typically see on screen.
What are some of the themes Deadly Class will explore?
I think the theme that I’m most interested in exploring is the unvarnished truth of being a teenager and how messy it is and how difficult it is to evolve into an adult person. All the self-exploration that you do with yourself, our characters are doing it in a very heightened world. And so for me the themes of growing up and growing into the person that you’re going to be for the rest of your life are really interesting.
What makes the ‘80s the perfect setting for that kind of a story?
Well, obviously that’s the time that Rick [Remender] was coming of age in, and so 1987 was a very important year for him. I think that he desperately wanted to write a love letter to Gen X. Stranger Things and ET and all of those movies do a great job in presenting that version of the ‘80s, but I think that he wanted to take the characters and the friends that he had growing up, that he knew intimately, and he wanted to make them the heroes of this story; the punk kids, the goth kids, the metal kids, and the hip hop kids. He wanted them to be front and center in this story. That’s a version of the ‘80s that you don’t get to see very often. I think that was probably the most important thing to him when he sat down to write the comic book.
It also exposes this generation that’s coming of age now to a new batch of music and a new batch of art that they might not be familiar with. This is not typically a time, space, or group of kids that we get to see on screen very often. This is what they thought about. This is what they believed in. This is what they were interested in. This was the music, the culture, and the movies they were talking about. And to let them kind of draw the parallels to their own lives now.
Did you look at it as a challenge to take these themes of growing up and fit it into this allegory around organized crime and assassins? It’s an odd fit at first glance.
The book does a great job of that and we often talk about the school being a metaphor for these big institutions or systems that suck in good people and turn them into something else.
That’s very well established in the book already. I think the biggest challenge for us is to maintain the core tone of the source material and make sure that we can bring that to TV, which oftentimes is a real challenge. Sometimes you come full circle in the development process. You take it all away to another place and then you kind of come full circle back to the book which is really at the core of everything that we do.
Does having the voiceover help maintain that connection?
The voiceover is something that Rick did in the comic book and a lot of that is very personal from journal entries that he wrote at that time in his life. You really get inside of Marcus’ head through that convention. That’s an important thing that we do in the show so that we’re always coming back into this character and getting a sense of how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking about. Not just what he’s telling other kids that he’s thinking about.
When you really sit down and listen to what Marcus is talking about, he’s a very interesting, introspective, intellectual kid who’s thinking about the world in a really interesting, nuanced way. And then you see the things that he does, the shenanigans that he gets into, and you’re like, “How could such a smart kid do so much stupid shit?” But that’s the kind of juxtaposition of that time in your life where you are having that kind of grand, philosophical debate with yourself and then you’re also doing the dumbest shit that you’ve ever done in your entire life.
How much is the political era of 1987 really influencing the characters and how do you expect contemporary audiences to engage with that?
The kids at that time were experiencing the political landscape in a similar way to the kids right now. There was a lot of anger towards the establishment. There was a lot of, “We’re not gonna do things the way that our parents did it. We’re gonna try a different way. We’re gonna do it ourselves. We’re gonna reject the establishment.” I think you’re seeing some of that in the time that we’re in right now, there’s anger at the system and there’s anger at the government, and those kids in our story are going through the same thing.
If kids are experiencing that now, I’m sure they’ll draw those parallels to their own life. I think we’re just trying to represent those particular groups of kids authentically. And then they’re also talking about the music and also talking about the movies and the times, so we don’t try to solely focus on that one aspect of who they are.
In the pilot Master Lin (Benedict Wong) talks about moral codes and the disenfranchised… How does this show reconcile that with the fact that there are neo-Nazi’s in the school?
Well, Master Lin, one of the big journeys he has over the course of the season is that he’s trying to figure out exactly what he stands for. Originally, his great grandfather had a very noble intention when he founded this school, he was going to give power to the oppressed. And now, as time has gone on, that vision has been somewhat corrupted and now all these more powerful organizations are giving their kids training at the academy. So, he is having a crisis of conscience over the first season. He’s having this argument with the teacher who Henry Rollins plays, who saying, “Remember 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 of this place. I won’t reveal too much, but that is his battle in the first season is, “What do I stand for now that I’m teaching all of these cartel and yakuza and all these people that already have power?”
What metaphoric relationship with violence is this show is engaging with?
I mentioned earlier that the school becomes a metaphor for the institutions and the systems that kind of suck in good people and spit out something else. This is a question that Rick and I ask ourselves, not just on this project, but in a lot of different projects that we do, and it’s the question that an artist has to ask themselves every time they are showing society kind of, “This is what I see in you. I’m holding up a mirror and I’m showing you what I see. I’m reflecting it back.” And so, it’s the case when you write a character that is racist, or sexist, or homophobic. Which doesn’t always feel great, but sometimes you don’t want to whitewash necessarily what the world looks like. You want to show it.
I guess there’s kind of two schools of thought in art in that way. One is you can show the world, this is the aspirational version of what I wish you would be and the other is to show them what I see in you now. And can we talk about it and can we discuss how to do things better but you have to look at this part of society.
For big fans of the comic, is there anything in season one that might really surprise them?
Yes. What’s cool about season one is that there are episodes in which you’re going to be like ‘that is straight from the comic book.’Las Vegas is created almost exactly as it is in the comic book. But then there are episodes in which it’s totally new stories of Deadly Class that you’ve never seen before. And that’s just a by-product of in the comic book, you have to move very, very quickly through a lot of story and you have to keep people engaged and hooked and you have to keep the story moving.
What’s great about TV is we can really explore the characters that you knew and you liked in the comic, but we Rick didn’t necessarily have time to unpack fully who they are. So there’s a lot more space given to Petra and Billy, and there’s a lot more space given to Lex and even Chico and Victor. You kind of explore who they are and what they’re thinking about, whether you like them or not.
But all of the characters get more time to interact with each other, there’s more context to their relationships. I think it’s cool for Rick because he gets to try ideas that he wanted to do in the book, but maybe never got around to doing. Or there’s crazy stories from his life or our lives that were thrown into the show that can fit the characters that we never got a chance to in the book.
Deadly Class premieres on January 16th at 10 p.m. ET on SYFY.