Make no mistake, while Syfy’s latest series about a secret school for young assassins set in the 1980s might reek of Harry Potter and Stranger Things comparisons, Deadly Class actually has more in common with Mean Girls.
Based on Rick Remender’s comic book series of the same name, Deadly Class centers around King’s Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts, a secret boarding school for assassins. Marcus Lopez (Benjamin Wadsworth), a homeless orphan, is quite literally plucked off the streets by the students of King’s Dominion. Turns out the headmaster (Benedict Wong) has been keeping an eye on him — after a mysterious incident at a boy’s home that we don’t learn all the details of just yet — and wants him to join their ranks.
Though this sounds like a rehash of the “secret boarding school for [insert cool profession here]” narrative, there are plenty of things about the Syfy series, debuting on Wednesday, that signal a show that can transcend the sales pitch. Here are five:
Lana Condor kicks ass
Benjamin Wadsworth’s Marcus Lopez is your typical fish-out-of-water protagonist, the audience proxy in a world of cutthroat assassins and killers. Wadsworth is charming enough and Marcus fills his role of viewer surrogate pretty well, but what makes Deadly Class stand out is the surrounding cast.
Lana Condor, who skyrocketed in fame after last year’s rom-com To All the Boys I Loved Before, is the top of the class. Her character Saya is no-nonsense, and determined to become valedictorian (we’re scared to learn what that means, but wish her the best of luck). Particularly compelling is her relationship with María Gabriela de Faría Chacón’s Maria, both ruthless in their own ways, best friends instead of rivals. Other sparkling side characters include Willie, a hardened gangster with a secret soft side, eccentric Billy who quickly takes Marcus under his wing, and Goth Girl Petra (my personal favorite for biased reasons).
The animated flashback sequences
Occasional flashback sequences punctuate the gritty live-action by lifting imagery straight from the graphic novel. It’s aesthetically cool and a little nod to the fact that this is a world that’s a bit off-kilter to ours, one where criminals and top CIA agents alike send their kids to an elite school for killers.
In the pilot episode, Marcus reveals the gruesome fate of his parents — and the origins of his personal vendetta against the president (more on that later). It starts off with a pastel green palette, almost childlike in tone as little Marcus follows his parents while carrying a red balloon. But the scene changes sharply. It’s intense and unsettling, in an fascinating way.
These brightly colored snippets also serve as a sharp juxtaposition against the dark live-action material. That’s literal; the live-action footage is dark in a “does this version of 1987 San Francisco not have funding for lighting fixtures?” way.
The classes at King’s Dominion
A school for aspiring assassins isn’t going to follow your typical high school curriculum. Instead of AP Calculus, P.E. and Chemistry, the students at King’s Dominion take courses that’ll prepare them for their real world. In AP Black Arts, Master Lin (Benedict Wong) assigning his students to assassinate a worthy target. Hand-to-Hand Combat begins with Miss DeLuca (Erica Cerra) talking about the last stand of the Comanche people against the Republic of Texas’s declaration of genocide. In Poison Lab, Petra and Billy spike a bully’s drink as a prank.
The social hierarchy of assassin school
Much like Mean Girls, the assassin school has a brutal and rigid social hierarchy. Marcus is a rat, meaning he’s a first-generation student. Fellow rats include the aforementioned Billy and Petra, as well as crass British punk rocker Lex. The rest of King’s Dominion, however, come from existing legacies, and have formed into typical high school cliques, just with more murderous tendencies.
And like Mean Girls, Billy explains the intricacies of the King’s Dominion’s social hierarchy to Marcus in a cafeteria lunch-hour scene. Some of the cliques Billy points out are the Preps, children of the CIA and FBI; Soto Vatos (“cartel...like the star football kids at a normal school”); the Dixie Mob; the Hessians (“Lower on the totem pole, but [they have] weed”); Final World Order; and the Kuroki Syndicate (“Yakuza kids”). There are a few stragglers with other ties, like brawny Viktor, son of Stalin’s most infamous assassin, so it’s possible even more factions exist.
“I’m going to assassinate Ronald Reagan.”
Marcus says this without a hint of irony in the pilot episode. Everyone around him laughs. It’s great! Not only does it give Marcus a driving motivation and more character, it also gives us context of the world. Even in this place full of young assassins and gang fights after school, there are still impossible, infeasible crimes, such as killing the president. We don’t know if Marcus will succeed over the course of the series — hell, it’s an alternate, assassin-filled world, so anything’s possible.
The first episode of Deadly Class is available online now. It premieres on Syfy on Jan. 16 at 10 p.m. EST.