Deadly Class is that rare pilot that opens up with a mission statement and manages not to feel particularly didactic about it.
The series, which follows a homeless teenager named Marcus (Bejamin Wadsworth) after he is recruited to a boarding school for budding assassins, is based on a comic book written by Rick Remender, who also produces the show. He has said that one of the benefits of TV is that he will get to explore some of the spaces in between stories in the comics, and to elaborate on things that he moved past fairly quickly the first time around.
Such an approach is similar to what Robert Kirkman did on The Walking Dead, and given the comic's history and the charismatic cast assembled on Deadly Class, you could see Deadly Class generating the same fervent following as that one. Will it propel SYFY into the atmosphere the way The Walking Dead did for AMC? Probably not -- that is likely an impossible feat to duplicate, especially as "peak TV" gets more and more dispersed between dozens of channels and fistfuls of streaming services. But it has that same crackling excitement to it, and the same stakes.
If you put a gun to my head — something that happens quite a bit in Deadly Class, by the way — and asked for a problem with the pilot, the answer is the pacing. It starts out…well, not slow, exactly, but typical. About 15 minutes in, it really comes into its own and by the time it’s over, Deadly Class is one of the best pilots I have seen in years.
The bits that feel like they drag a bit are mostly the parts where Marcus is the sole protagonist, with no one to bounce off of, and most of what we are seeing is how hard his life is. It is necessary exposition to make sense of the decisions he makes later in the episode, so it makes sense for it to be there and the pilot would be poorer if it were cut. But once the rest of the cast starts to step into his world, the show comes alive.
The pilot was created with the benefit of 30-plus issues of comics in the bank, so it does a really effective job of managing screen time for its large cast. Certain players need to be front and center in the pilot because they will help shape the destiny of the series, and others can be downplayed so that their impact can be greater down the line.
It also manages to subvert expectations for new viewers: while comic book fans likely know that Brandy (Siobhan Williams), the beautiful blonde who gets her nose bloodied by Master Lin (Benedict Wong) for passing a note in class, is a white supremacist and an overall terrible person, the TV audience learns that only after instinctively "siding" with her when she is struck by her teacher. This is a small creative decision on the part of the writers and producers, but it is typical of the kind of small decisions that all pile up to make the pilot an hour of television that has some surprises in store even for those who have been actively following the series' marketing.
Deadly Class is a series that features a handful of tropes that should not work, but do. Marcus’s voiceover had the potential to spell doom for the pilot, but Benjamin Wadsworth delivers it with such believably raw emotion that it snatches greatness from the jaws of mediocrity. With '80s nostalgia running wild in popular culture, yet another gritty, violent series set against the backdrop of 1987 might feel redundant -- but rather than taking the small-town approach of Stranger Things or It, Deadly Class explores the underground punk scene of late '80s San Francisco.
That undercurrent of anti-establishment is something else that plays well for the show: Marcus's anti-Reagan screeds feel even more apt now than they did when the comic launched, given the similarities between Reagan and current U.S. President Donald Trump, both of whom were celebrities who came in from outside of politics and shook things up by appealing to right-wing populism. Deadly Class could probably be set in the modern day and set aside the skater underground for #TheResistance, with similar results...but it would undercut the story in a way that looking back with historical context and a little clinical detachment does not. There are already a half-dozen shows on TV dealing with Trumpworld, after all. Do we need another? What could it say?
The cast is uniformly excellent, and while not all of them get a real moment to shine in the pilot, some particular standouts are Maria Gabriela de Faria, who plays Maria; Liam James, who plays Billy; and Jack Gillett, who plays Lex.
These are stand-out roles not because they or their characters are "the best" in the episode necessarily, but because they get less screen time relative to characters like Lin, Marcus, Saya (Lana Condor), and Willie (Luke Tennie), so they have to really own the screen when they are in the frame. Fans of the comic will know just how important it is for de Faria to get Maria just right -- she is a mutlifaceted character, difficult to bring to life, and a lot of plot hinges on her. That the TV version is so spot-on speaks to why so much of the pilot works: they obviously got the right people for the jobs.
The pilot was directed by Lee Toland Krieger, who helped shape the look of Riverdale, and as with that series, Krieger uses color and light very effectively, helping to create a clear mood and intent even in scenes that are either silent, or a blur of action and violence. The stunt and fight choreography is on-point, too, and without that, a TV adaptation of Deadly Class would likely be DOA.
There is a lot to recommend Deadly Class, the next comics adaptation from Avengers: Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo, so give it a try when it hits SYFY on January 16 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Are you excited for Deadly Class? Comment below to let us know what you're looking forward to, or if there's something from the comics you can't wait to see.