The Turmoil Behind-The-Scenes Of Netflix's New Young Adult Drama 'Grand Army'

Post by: Rick Ellis 03 September, 2020

For an industry that has made such an impact on the world, the American television business can be very insular and hard to access. So much of what goes on in the deal making is about relationships and reputations. You can be difficult as long as it doesn't affect the final product or the bottom line. You can be an ass, but people will still hire you if they believe the scales of your work product continue to tilt even somewhat in the direction of "troublesome, but still worth it." Relationships also matter. Television shows are multi-million dollar businesses and when you're hiring people, you often do so in part because of their reputation. Does someone else vouch for your work? Have you heard good things from other people you trust? As scary as it sounds, sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling about whether you think someone can do the job you need them to do.

And because relationships are so important, because no one wants to burn a bridge with anyone else in this often intimate industry without a soul-breaking reason, it's extremely difficult to cover disputes that go on behind-the-scenes of a show. Sure, get any four random TV industry people in a room and pretty soon they'll be swapping horror stories about the nightmares they have worked with. But these aren't stories that are shared publicly and you certainly don't go out of your way to share them unasked.

All of this is why Tuesday's comments from former Grand Army writer Ming Peiffer are so notable. In a series of tweets, she explained that she and two other writers who are POC quit the show "due to racist exploitation and abuse." She went on to accuse the show of dealing in "poverty porn" and claimed the showrunner and creator had gone "full Karen" on a black writer who worked on the show.

As you might imagine, these comments received a lot of attention and I was certainly interested in finding out more about the allegations. After spending much of Thursday trying to interview staff and get comments from anyone on the show - along with a comment from Netflix - I'm still not left with a lot clarity about the precise details of what happened behind-the-scenes in the Grand Army writer's room. But after speaking with several people who had direct knowledge of some of the disputes, the core of the problem seems to be a combination of inexperience and a serious disagreement about the authenticity of some of the show's characters.

Grand Army is a drama based on the 2013 Katie Cappiello play Slut. The series tells the stories of five students at the largest public high school in Brooklyn. Cappiello has said in numerous interviews that the stories are inspired by young people she has met during her many years of teaching acting classes for kids and teens. She has describes herself as a "playwright, director, feminist, teacher, activist and public speaker," and her bio talks extensively about her efforts to use theater arts as a tool for policy and cultural change:

Katie facilitates workshops and lectures on political theater and the need for creative outlets for youth activism, along with rape culture, healthy sexuality and the universal benefit of feminism and artistic feminist spaces. She has presented her work as part of Tedx, Talks@Google, The Brooklyn Conference, The Harlem Book Fair, ReGender Summit (GA), Art and Conversation at The Hammer Museum (LA), It's Never Okay: A Summit to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment (Toronto, Canada), FRESH TALK at The National Museum of Women in the Arts (DC); and at high schools and colleges throughout the US. 

But when Netflix picked up the series, they faced a couple of problems that aren't unique to Grand Army. Cappiello didn't have television experience - particularly experience running a TV show. So as is generally done in these situations, Cappiello was surrounded with more experienced people who could hopefully teach her along the way and insure the show didn't go off the tracks due to inexperience. Joshua Donen (House of Cards, Gone Girl) was brought into executive produce alongside nonwriting EPs Beau Willimon, Nicolette Donen and Jordan Tappis.

The other challenge with a show like Grand Army is that the stories themselves can be difficult to tell with authenticity and the right tone. Television history is filled with the stories about the lives of persons of color who are told by well-meaning but often misguided white writers and producers. Netflix appears to have been aware of that potential pitfall and seems to have made a sincere effort to hire a reasonably diverse writing staff.

But the sources I spoke with on Thursday described a series of battles over the idea of authenticity and why certain storylines were given to specific characters. Although I've seen all of season one, I am under the terms of an embargo and can't talk much about the specific of the plot points. But early in the process of breaking down the season and the season's beats, disputes reportedly began to take place between Cappiello and several of the show's POC writers. According to descriptions of the conversations, the writers (who often had more experience in television) felt some of Cappiello's creative choices relied too heavily on familiar racial tropes and that some of the language and decisions made by the characters didn't feel as if they were based in the reality of a current high school. And there were complaints that some of the white characters were given stories that should have gone to a non-white character.

One Grand Army staffer who asked not to be identified had sympathy for both sides of the situation. "She (Cappiello) strongly felt that she was telling the stories like teens she had met over the years. When she got pushback, her back went up because she legitimately felt she was doing right by these characters. But she might not have handled things the way someone would have that had more experience running a staff. I didn't agree with all of the arguments, but I think if someone brings up legitimate concerns about whether a character is racially authentic, you should at least listen."

There's no way to determine from the writing credits on an episode who contributed what parts of the script. But it's worth noting that at the end of the day, Cappiello's name is the only one on 5 of the season's nine episodes. Her name is one episodes 1-4 as well as the final episode. Hillary Bettis (The Americans) is a co-writer with Cappiello on episode five and Randy McKinnon (Chambers) is a co-writer on episode six. Andy Parker (Tales of the City) is the only name credited on episode seven. But Cappiello is one of four writers credited on episode eight, which also includes Ming Peiffer (who posted the Twitter comments), Leewa Nasserdeen (Daredevil) and Alessandra Clark.

As I said at the top, I've reached out to just about everyone associated with the show and while I've learned some aspects of the story, it still feels like some writer's room version of "Rashomon."

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Last modified on Friday, 04 September 2020 01:12