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‘Boarders’ Review: A Strong Cast of Newcomers Elevates Tubi’s Likably Familiar High-School Dramedy

A good high-school or college TV show is like a time machine, designed to transport nostalgic older viewers backward to youth or (more rarely) younger viewers forward to an anticipated maturity. At the same time, it’s a sufficiently codified genre that the nostalgia is as much for other fictional favorites in the same narrative space as it is for any “real” experience of high school or college.

A well-cast high-school or college TV show is a time machine on yet another level, enjoyable in its immediacy but also a preview for decades of future ensembles. Even if the breakouts from a Freaks and Geeks or Sex Education or Dear White People aren’t always the stars you’d expect, one needn’t watch more than a scene or two to know how well-populated those shows are.

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Daniel Lawrence Taylor’s new prep-school dramedy Boarders — produced for BBC Three and airing on Tubi in the States — is thoroughly and inoffensively derivative. Despite a premise that feels immersed in several timely subjects, the conversations it generates are more likely to revolve around which shows it reminds you of — add All American and The Sex Lives of College Girls to those previously mentioned YA ensembles. But derivative isn’t bad, and if you’re a fan of this venerable coming-of-age genre, Boarders offers six episodes of solidly executed covers of the greatest hits. It’s consistently likable, occasionally clever and the young cast of relatively newcomers delivers across the board.

The series is set at St. Gilbert’s, a private — or “public” if you’re British — boarding school that has been churning out the nation’s elite for centuries. But St. Gilbert’s has gone from calcified to toxic, and after a video of rowdy students taunting and tormenting an unhoused man goes viral, the headmaster (Derek Riddell’s Bernard) determines that it’s time for new blood and a new attitude.

The solution (which doesn’t, in any way, combat the specific problem presented in the offending video): St. Gilbert’s brings in a quintet of Black students from a hardscrabble area of South London, part of a scholarship program organized by Gus (Taylor, in an occasional guest role). The hope is that the five students, all gifted in different ways, will push the school and its cultural attitudes into the 21st century.

Jaheim (Josh Tedeku), running with a marginally sketchy crowd in his old neighborhood, is athletic and has engineering brilliance. Leah (Jodie Campbell) is a political firebrand and is apparently a musical savant, though the latter plays almost no part in the series. It’s hard to get any feeling about his backstory, but Toby (Sekou Diaby) is a brilliant polyglot and a savvy businessman, even if everybody assumes that means he sells drugs. Omar (Myles Kamwendo) is gay and an inspired cartoonist, who dreams of being part of a St. Gilbert’s secret society that’s so secret it may not even exist. Finally, Femi (Aruna Jalloh) is terrified to disappoint his loving but demanding Nigerian family, and although the five scholarship kids are told they embody Black excellence, nobody is sure what Femi is excellent at.

Very quickly, the scholarship kids attract attention from the entrenched elite at St. Gilbert’s. There’s Rupert (Harry Gilby), one of the kids featured in the incriminating video and son of scheming Carol (Nike Wardley), the head of the school’s board. Rupert is dating Florence (Georgina Sadler), queen bee and bestie to Beatrix (Tallulah Greive), who takes an immediate interest in Jaheim, and Abby (Assa Kanoute), Leah’s roommate and one of the school’s only other students of color.

I’ve attempted forensic analysis on the six episodes and I still don’t have a clue how much time passes in the first season of Boarders. Nearly every episode features a key moment in the annual St. Gilbert’s calendar — traditional parties, competitions, fundraising luncheons — but there’s a chance the season takes place over only a week or two, which would cause a lot of the character arcs to make no sense. There’s also a chance that the season takes place over months or possibly a full school year, which would probably make even less sense. Despite the fact that the show’s key arcs are simple and familiar things — the scholarship students will change St. Gilbert’s, but not if St. Gilbert’s doesn’t corrupt them first — the handling of time and character evolution in Boarders is bizarrely choppy and frequently inconsistent.

Perhaps eight or 10 episodes would have allowed Taylor and the writers to smooth out certain gaps. Or maybe Taylor’s point is that teenagers grow and mature in ways that are choppy and inconsistent. Either way, “ebb and flow” isn’t what Boarders does best.

The show also isn’t especially good at putting its finger on any particular pulse. Storylines like Leah’s protests against a very racist portrait of the school’s founder feel several years behind a cultural curve. Seeing the way right-wing groups on the global stage are actively targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs, there’s a very obvious topicality that Boarders isn’t interestingly engaging in; nor do I feel like it has much to say about the way race and immigrant communities are currently being treated in the U.K.

There’s still a distinctiveness to the voices of the show’s five main characters — especially Toby and Jaheim, whose slang may demand subtitles for some audiences — and a smart respectfulness for genre conventions that make Boarders just unpredictable enough that you won’t always anticipate which realistically flawed choices are going to steer the action. The characters are all prone to decisions that stem from a universally relatable adolescent search for identity, whether sexual or ideological, and are exacerbated by the prevalence of social media, probably the most timely aspect of the show. Boarders never over-idealizes its heroes, and the characters who are meant to be villains, or villainous, are at least complicated, though I don’t think the show ever lands on an approach to Rupert that quite works. Or perhaps it just takes longer than six episodes to make me buy the rehabilitation of a character who does the stuff Rupert does in the premiere.

The five young stars anchor the show, topped by the extremely funny Diaby, the sympathetic Tedeku and the effectively fragile Kamwendo. Both Diaby and Campbell share their best scenes with Kanoute, who has the most interesting role within the supporting cast, along with Greive, who takes her character from an early flighty stereotype into something more nuanced in short order. Although Femi is easily the least developed of the main characters, Jalloh adds intensity to his uncertainty in a show that maybe isn’t always well-suited for “intensity.”

Though directors Ethosheia Hylton and Sarmad Masud work hard at grounding the initially dark undertones, Boarders is more comfortable bringing fish-out-of-water hijinks to the high-school/college tropes — a high-stakes paintball game here, a silly drug trip there, sexual misadventures everywhere. It’s better at “Things like this happen on TV shows in the genre, so let’s do them well” than “Things like this happen in the real world, so let’s approach them with seriousness.” If you like the genre, and I surely do, and you like the cast, and I very quickly did, there’s a lot of appeal in that approach.

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