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Boarding School Blues with a Modern Twist: Is the BBC's 'Boarders' Worth the Watch?

Updated: Mar 6

Top of the class: Sekou Diaby, Josh Tedeku, Jodie Campbell, Myles Kamwendo and Aruna Jalloh CREDIT: BBC/Jonathan Birch
Sekou Diaby, Josh Tedeku, Jodie Campbell, Myles Kamwendo and Aruna Jalloh /BBC

The elite world of boarding schools has long been a source of fascination, from nostalgic tales of midnight feasts to dramas unveiling the harsh realities behind the idyllic facade. The BBC's new comedy-drama "Boarders" dives headfirst into this setting, but with a refreshing twist: it centers on a group of Black London teens thrown into the privileged halls of the fictional St. Gilbert's. Does "Boarders" succeed in delivering pointed social commentary and genuine laughs, or is it merely a well-intentioned lesson disguised as entertainment?

The Premise: Tokenism Takes Center Stage

When St. Gilbert's finds itself embroiled in a scandal (think champagne poured on the less fortunate, courtesy of its star pupil), a diversity initiative is hastily launched. Five Black students from less-affluent backgrounds arrive on scholarships, promptly becoming the unwilling poster children for the school's newfound commitment to inclusivity. This sets up an environment filled with awkward humor as both the students and the staff attempt to navigate the clash of cultures, prejudices, and expectations.

"Boarders" gets off to a sharp start, with the first few episodes delivering the most incisive satire. The school's "inclusion team" practically stalks the newcomers, hoping to capture that elusive image of "Black excellence" to plaster on brochures. However, the show wisely recognizes that diversity extends beyond racial lines, even within a single demographic group. The five central characters embody this beautifully, each navigating their new reality in distinct ways.

Meet the New Students: Rebellious, Relatable, and More Than Stereotypes

Jaheim (Josh Tedeku) is the standout, a troubled young man with undeniable potential. Torn between staying true to his roots and the overwhelming pressure to be a success story, he's both fierce and vulnerable. Leah (Jodie Campbell) embodies the idealistic activist, challenging the status quo, while Toby (Sekou Diaby) plays the smooth-talking charmer, happy to capitalize on assumptions about him. Femi (Aruna Jalloh) seeks acceptance from a martini-sipping crowd with questionable nicknames, and Omar (Myles Kamwendo) is the endearing geek whose wisdom often outshines his years.

Sekou Diaby, Josh Tedeku, Myles Kamwendo and Aruna Jalloh BBC/Jonathan Birch
Sekou Diaby, Josh Tedeku, Myles Kamwendo and Aruna Jalloh BBC

Thankfully, thanks to both the nuanced writing of Daniel Lawrence Taylor ("Timewasters") and the excellent young cast, nobody feels like a cardboard cutout. While some of the school's elite fall into more stereotypical mean-girl or snobbish-bully tropes, the main characters offer refreshing complexity that keeps "Boarders" engaging.

Balancing the Satire and the Story

While the early episodes offer scathing commentary on tokenism and shallow attempts at inclusivity, the show does soften as it progresses. It settles into a gentler, coming-of-age rhythm that's less overtly focused on social critique. While some viewers may find this a missed opportunity, the shift allows for greater character development while still highlighting important issues. Expect sharp observations and laugh-out-loud moments peppered throughout.

The hypocrisy of diversity quotas is a recurring theme. From teachers obsessed with photo-ops for the school website to wealthy parents who weaponize progressive slogans, "Boarders" takes a lighthearted approach to serious matters. Whether that approach delivers a substantial message or merely scratches the surface is up to the individual viewer.

Visuals and Humor

"Boarders" benefits from excellent set design and a distinct visual style. The juxtaposition of London's urban energy with St. Gilbert's manicured lawns and old-school architecture reinforces the sense of displacement felt by many of the characters. The humor is largely situational and character-driven. Some viewers may find the portrayal of the more privileged students slightly exaggerated, but overall, it complements the show's satirical tone.

Is "Boarders" Worth Your Time?

If you're looking for a gritty, no-holds-barred takedown of the British boarding school system, you might be disappointed. However, if you're open to a comedy-drama that mixes pointed social commentary with relatable coming-of-age journeys, "Boarders" is definitely worth considering. Its greatest strength lies in its diverse central cast, whose struggles and triumphs transcend any single label.

In the end, "Boarders" is about identity, both personal and communal. It's about the desire to belong while remaining true to yourself, particularly when those two things seem irreconcilable. While not every satirical punch fully lands, it's a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking watch. And for anyone who ever dreamed of boarding school, it offers a much-needed dose of reality.

FAQ for Boarders

Q: I enjoy dramas set in schools but worry those can be clichéd. Is "Boarders" different?

A: Definitely! While "Boarders" has some familiar boarding school tropes, it focuses on a fresh perspective: Black working-class students navigating an elite, traditionally white space. This unique setup leads to both poignant social commentary and relatable teenage struggles.

Q: Is "Boarders" all heavy social critique, or is there humor too?

A: "Boarders" offers a satisfying blend! Expect sharp satire early on, particularly aimed at tokenism and hypocritical attempts at inclusion. However, the show also has heartwarming moments of friendship, awkward humor, and universal coming-of-age experiences.

Q: Do I need to be familiar with the UK private school system to understand the show?

A: Not at all! While "Boarders" makes some specific jabs at British institutions, the core themes about belonging, identity, and clashing socio-economic worlds are relatable for audiences anywhere.

Q: I'm drawn to character-focused shows. Does "Boarders" deliver?

A: Absolutely! Its greatest strength lies in the five central students, each distinct and complex. They face unique pressures and make choices that may surprise you. It's more about their individual journeys than predictable stereotypes.

Q: Would "Boarders" appeal to a younger audience as well?

A: While the themes are accessible to teens, the show does address mature topics like peer pressure, class divisions, and finding your place amidst conflict. It might be best for older teens and adults seeking a thought-provoking dramedy.

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