Tubi’s Boarders Is the Next Great Teen Drama

5 minute read

If you want to know how power and identity work within a society, look to its elite private secondary schools—where the stratification is extreme and the students too young to be tactful about it. On top are the old-money, invariably white campus demigods whose families put their names on buildings and sit on the board of trustees. Next come equally wealthy international kids and the bourgeois majority, who don’t own the place but feel secure in the knowledge that they belong there. There may be a smattering of middle-class strivers, desperate to fit in, do well, and justify their parents’ investment. Finally, there are the scholarship students, working-class and often non-white teens of extraordinary abilities who must overcome their inevitable culture shock in order to prove every day that they “deserve to be here.”

So it is at St. Gilberts, the boarding school at the center of the fantastic British teen drama Boarders, whose first season debuted on BBC Three in February and arrives on Tubi in the U.S. on March 8. Yet in an overdue break from rich-kid soaps like the recently rebooted Gossip Girl and Beverly Hills, 90210, this series spotlights a cohort of Black scholarship students brought in to diversify the old-fashioned (read: racist) institution in the wake of a scandal. The show strikes an ideal balance between brutal honesty and empathetic tenderness, social commentary and fun.

Aruna Jalloh, left, and Myles Kamwendo in BoardersBBC—Studio Lambert Media

Key to achieving this tone are multidimensional main characters portrayed by a talented young cast. Toby (Sekou Diaby), a language prodigy and schemer, gets stereotyped by his new peers as a drug dealer just because he has dreadlocks. The son of strict Nigerian immigrants, Femi (Aruna Jalloh) feels a crushing pressure to excel. Omar (Myles Kamwendo) is the resident nerd, drawing horny comics and obsessing over rumors of a secret society that may or may not exist. Leah (Jodie Campbell), an activist who declares war on a racist painting St. Gilberts proudly displays, is the only girl of the bunch. (“It’s not our fault that underprivileged Black boys are in at the moment,” one guy tells her.) And Jaheim (Josh Tedeku) is the everyboy protagonist, with serious computer skills and a group of rough but devoted friends back home in South London.

Each kid gets their own set of conflicts, from Femi’s absorption into his roommate’s debauched clique to Jaheim catching the wrath of Rupert (Harry Gilby), a posh master-of-the-universe type whose girlfriend (Rosie Graham’s Florence) has eyes for the new boy. (Rupert credits himself for the scholarship program, devised to counter public scrutiny of the school after he and his unexpellable friends made a video of themselves assaulting a homeless man.) Leah’s story line, which traces her fragile bond with a biracial roommate (Assa Kanoute’s Abby) who hangs with the popular girls and budding romance with a Black boy who isn’t on scholarship (Niyi Akin’s Koku), is especially perceptive about the way race and class intersect at a place like St. Gilberts.

Creator Daniel Lawrence Taylor (Timewasters) savvily incorporates a handful of adults who shape the school’s policies—and politics—without detracting from the teens. Headmaster Bernard (Derek Riddell) is charged with modernizing a stodgy institution while keeping conservative parents and donors happy. His quest to shape Jaheim into a model St. Gilberts boy illustrates the impossible burden the scholarship students shoulder: socially and academically unprepared for this new environment, they are nonetheless expected to embody “Black excellence” by rising to the top of the class. Meanwhile, a pair of relentlessly enthusiastic DEI czars (Nimisha Odedra’s Preeya and Sarah Daykin’s Chelsea) roam around campus snapping photos of diversity in action without offering any real support to minority students.

Jaheim (Josh Tedeku) in the crosshairs of the DEI team (Nimisha Odedra, left, and Sarah Daykin)BBC—Studio Lambert Media

Boarders isn’t exactly the first teen drama of its kind. Netflix’s Spanish-language hit Élite and Peacock’s straight-faced Fresh Prince reboot, Bel-Air, consider the plights of kids from humble backgrounds at prestigious private high schools. But both shows take themselves too seriously, with soapy twists and characters who act like miniature adults. A closer comparison might be Dear White People, which satirizes race relations at a fictional American Ivy, filtering institutional prejudice and absurdity through the perspectives of Black achievers from all walks of life. 

What sets Boarders apart is its tone, which infuses its observant strain of realism with warmth. The show tackles such serious issues as bullying, tokenism, and structural inequality with a lightness akin to that of Sex Education or Never Have I Ever. While a few details feel a bit obvious, like a pointed shot of a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker on the car of a powerful board member who is also a textbook Karen, there are no cloying Very Special Episodes to be found among this bingeable batch of six. In fact, the only real complaint I have about the first season is that it’s far too short. If ever a TV series could support an old-school, American broadcast order of 23 episodes, it would be this instant classic among teen dramas.  

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