The opening scene of Syfy’s Deadly Class says it all. Master Lin, the dean of the underground assassin school known as Kings Dominion, is in the middle of teaching his AP Black Arts course when a student tries sneaking a note to the “new meat” on campus. The metal point of Lin’s staff suddenly cracks through the air to crush the student’s nose, smearing her fair skin and ‘80s perm with blood. (You can watch it here).
“That discipline dean,” actor Benedict Wong mentions to Collider on the series’ Vancouver set one crisp November afternoon. “He just despises weakness.” As Brandy sucks back her tears, turning to her prey to lick the dark ooze off her fingers like some kinky sex tease, it’s clear this isn’t simply Hogwarts for Killers.
In 2014, comic book writer Rick Remender released Deadly Class as an ode to the “Reagan Youth,” the lost boys of the ‘80s, a forgotten generation of skater kids who were condemned to the shadows of the Breakfast Club and lived for the B-sides of indie rock cassette tapes. It was, as Remender wrote in the afterword of Vol. 1, “a coming-of-age story about broken kids expected to deal with a violent world.” When the producers of Syfy’s Deadly Class tackled the universe of Kings Dominion, they didn’t shy away from putting all the ugliness on the page on the screen — even if the material bears more weight in the year 2019.
Deadly Class follows Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth), a street kid recruited by Lin into Kings Dominion based on rumors of his violent streak that may not be entirely accurate. The orphan with nothing to lose is thrust into a dark world of an elite private academy where kids learn poison instead of science, the “Soto Vatos” cartel gang replaces the jocks, and the cheerleaders hide razor blades in their black pom-poms. Guns aren’t allowed in Kings Dominion (per Master Lin’s rules, that’s too lazy of a kill), but that level of violence in a school setting will no doubt raise eyebrows for 2019 audiences, at a time when mass shootings are too common of a tragedy. But series co-creator Miles Orion Feldsott promises it’s for a purpose:
“I think there’s two ways to look at art and it’s certainly a question that Rick and I ask ourselves, not only when we put violence in this project, but if we put homophobia or racism or sexism or any kind of ugliness of the world,” he explains. “You have to ask yourself, why is it there? And I think it’s there to hold up a mirror to society. And there’s certainly the other way to go, which is more aspirational art, but there are dark things in our society that we want to examine through art.”
For Feldsott, who’s showrunning Deadly Class with Remender and Mick Betancourt, he’s not interested in portraying violence as “edgy.” He says “it’s more about, what are the consequences of that? … The way that we look at the school is really a metaphor for how we look at all these institutions and systems, and the relationship dynamics that push good kids towards a darker side or towards an ugliness in the world.”
In this story, Kings Dominion was established years ago by Lin’s grandfather as a means of training the poor and oppressed to rise up against their masters. But in 1987 when the series takes place, those in power have taken over the school. Now, the Asian headmaster is not just teaching the legacy kids who hail from the big crime families, the CIA and the Yakuza, but also neo-Nazis — another inclusion that holds a new meaning against the real world’s reign of President Trump and the public resurgence of white supremacists.
“He is having a crisis of conscious in the first season,” Feldsott elaborates of Lin. “He is having this argument with the [poison] teacher that Henry Rollins plays, who’s saying, ‘You were different when you were younger. What do you stand for now?’ And there’s also a powerful organization that’s above Master Lin that expects him to maintain order over this place.”
It’s not something Wong considered before, but something, he implies, makes sense for the story. “It’s a heightened world. Let’s not link it into the reality that we are in,” Wong clarifies with a laugh. “Let’s all get a grip.”
Siobhan Williams, playing Brandy, takes a break from shooting a scene with María Gabriela de Faría’s Maria, a member of the Soto Vatos. Terms like “wetback” and “savages” are thrown around a lot when Brandy refers to her non-white classmates. As a member of the Dixie Gang, she hails from the clique comprised of mostly Southern meth dealers and neo-Nazis, a result of her own upbringing.
“Brandy grew up the daughter of a Kentucky crime ring leader,” Williams says. “He was a meth dealer and notorious criminal, and she grew up in a family of boys and men. Even though she plays into the Southern Belle thing, she’s actually very masculine… super gross and not feminine at all, but she knows how to work her feminine side, and I think that came from her growing up trying to compete for her father’s affection with her brothers because they are more useful and more physically able to help on the farm as far as her father’s concerned.”
Brandy’s weapon isn’t just the razor blade pom poms, it’s manipulation. In one scene that appears later on in the season, she uses her influence to pit two of the non-white cliques at school against each other, commenting how she’ll just sit back while the minorities do her work for her. It’s a moment that speaks to the larger discussion about those in power manipulating the disenfranchised to fight each other instead of their oppressors. For this reason, Feldsott calls Brandy “one of the most nasty and dangerous and violent people” at Kings Dominion.
The inclusion of Brandy in the comics comes from Remender’s own experience witnessing racism and bigotry when he moved to a town south of Phoenix as a kid. With Remender so heavily involved in the series adaptation, he and the producers had an opportunity to expand on a lot of these elements.
“I think we have a lot more room to explore who these kids are,” Feldsott says, noting how pretty much everyone, including Soto Vatos leader Chico (Michel Duval) and skater head Billy (Liam James) get more narrative real estate. “There’s a number of episodes that, if you’re a fan of the comic, the tone is maintained in the series, but you’ll get new Deadly Class stories that you haven’t seen before.”
Homage is also paid to Wes Craig’s comic book art. In the first episode, a flashback sequence to the death of Marcus’ parents, played out in animation, is pulled directly from Craig’s drawings in Issue #1. All the artwork in Marcus’ notebook consists of new work by Craig commissioned for the series. The only thing that’s missing is a color story: while Craig’s comic, colored by Lee Loughridge, goes from bright reds and pale blues to vibrant yellows and lush greens on the page, Deadly Class sticks largely to a more muted pallet that mirrors the shadowy, gritty setting around Kings Dominion.
“You’ll see frames that are pulled out of the comic book,” Feldsott notes. “There’s a lot of reverence paid to the comic book, which is kind of our bible.”
Based on the adherence to the comics, which are already provocative, and that jolt of a first scene, it certainly seems as though we’re veering into TV-MA territory, though Feldsott couldn’t say. “There’s nothing that we’re aiming for,” he explains. “I think what we’re trying to do is tell an authentic story, a story that is true to our own high school experiences, one that has that glossy veneer over the top of it. So we’re not trying to be edgy or cool, we’re just trying to present the stories from our lives in an authentic way.”
Deadly Class premieres Wednesday, January 16th on Syfy.