Thumbnail: How ‘No Mercy’ Gets the High School Experience Right
I took six AP classes over the course of my high school career. I was president of the Readers’ Club. I won awards for poetry and public speaking. But because I was not uniformly incredible at everything I attempted, and because I did not go to what my school considered an impressive college, I was regarded as a “problem student.” This was not atypical.
Academic competition defined those four years, for me and for all 3,000 of my classmates. Yet for all the world’s media devoted to Teens Having Feelings, I rarely see this experience reflected. Jocks, nerds, burnouts, hotties — whatever. We’re all very familiar with tales of cafeteria warfare and bravery in the face of cystic acne. But where are the movies devoted to GPA mania? Clubs created for the sole purpose of claiming presidency on one’s transcript? The pitying looks a mere 4 on an AP exam elicits, rather than the vaunted 5? Nowhere, really, unless something Glee-ish decides to do a Very Special Episode on Adderall abuse.
“For four years we’d been shamelessly fighting our way to the top of school teams and service clubs that — secretly?—we didn’t give a sh-- about. All in the name of being a model Ivy League applicant,” narrator Lily explains. “So when Princeton emails all of us little hyperachievers about a pre-freshmen trip to build schools? We’re like, pavlovianly conditioned to leap at it.”
One dramatic bus crash later, the kids are left stranded in rural Central America. Wounded and scared, they ping pong between hanging together and lashing out. The nice Michigan girl doesn’t know how to interact with a black classmate. The mop-topped “freegan” can’t keep himself from yammering on and on about all the precious wisdom he’s accrued from trips into poorer, browner countries. The iPhone addict whimpers, “we’re Americans…we don’t hafta stay here.”
It’s brutal — and that’s wonderful. I’m all for a certain dewiness in our portrayals of adolescence: profundity found over Boone’s Farm in the back of the 7-11? I’m there. Mary Beth Nextdoor discovering she’s the lost princess of Lavendariashire-by-the-Sea? I’m there. But it’s also a deeply weird, deeply ugly, and deeply competitive age — often channeled, nowadays, through hardcore grade-grubbing.
By staring this in the face, No Mercy has created a cast that is, in four issues, more vibrant than that of many long-running series and more true to my 2004-2008 high school experience.
Ivy Leaguers who are rich in knowledge but not wisdom? Suburban princesses who never dared to cut their hair shorter than their shoulders? Condescending volun-tourism and the good little kids who jump at it? The endless, cynical gauntlet of accolades and accomplishments that college mania has warped the high school experience into? That’s something I experienced. That’s something that shaped me. That’s something I’ve needed to see skewered. And, with many a bubbly font and emoji, De Campi, Lee and McNeil do.