21 Thunder, the Canadian television show that made its way to Netflix last month, isn't all that concerned with football, even though football is ostensibly the subject matter of the show. Nah, soccer is just the proscenium surrounding a Gossip Girl-style show about young people leaving young people-land. It focuses on the U21 division of the Thunder, a fictional soccer team that plays for Montréal. This year, the pilot tells us in no uncertain terms, is a big deal for the players. Most of them have played together since they were twelve (U12, for the footie nerds in the back). Now that they're all approaching 21, they have to either launch professional football careers or pivot into something more sustainable. Ergo, internal conflict. Ergo, external conflict. Ergo, sexual relations catalysed by external conflict. The soccer shirts will be removed, declarations of love will happen on porches (and in the physical therapy room, and on the football pitch), and, heck, an arsonist might make a guest appearance! This show really does have everything, including a much-needed dose of diversity. Canadian television, come through!
The series protagonist — at face value — is Nolan Gallard (RJ Fetherstonhaugh), an adrift player whose father is in prison. He's the player most likely to make the first team, although Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo), a recruit from Côte d'Ivoire, is gaining on him. Nolan's storyline is the most mawkish, and the reason 21 Thunder will forever fall under the category of "teen dramas" even though its characters are well out of teenhood. In the grand tradition of Moody Protagonists With A Dark Past, Nolan takes after Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) from The O.C. or Jesse (Milo Ventimiglia) from Gilmore Girls. He has a belly rocker tattoo that reads "point soldier." His left pec reads "king." His hair is impressive. He is — sigh — not all that interesting, but he serves as an anodyne moral compass for the other characters.
Junior Lolo, previously mentioned, is a newcomer to Montréal. He has an ulterior motive. And, he's desperate. Alex el Haddadi (Andres Joseph) is the team captain, and he's thinking of going to Cornell for grad school. He's also desperate, but for different reasons from Junior. Stefan Arnaud (Kevin Claydon) has a mohawk. He's desperately in love with someone. Other than that, though, he's pretty chill. Finally, James Tran (Jonathan Kim) is new to the team, and he's desperate to fit in. Meanwhile, they all just want to be good at soccer, a delusion that's countered by the show's non-football-playing characters.
21 Thunder is, thankfully, not a man's show, despite being about a man's football team, and this is because 21 Thunder keeps the scope broad. This is about football, and the people who populate the soccer community. Physical therapists, philanthropists, med students, social media strategists, and referees are all in and around the show, and most of them are women. Two cases of "strong women saving the soapy show" come to mind: the team's owner, played Cristina Rosato, destroys most everyone on the show, and physical therapist-cum-criminal Lara (Eileen Yi) instigates the show's most bananas conflict. Lara is also fairly desperate.
The first season — the only one so far — follows a scheme that manages to implicate just about every character in ways I cannot divulge. The scheme gets increasingly ludicrous by the episode, but 21 Thunder does a lot of work convincing you this is the only option left for these characters. Never forget, this is a big year for the Montreal Thunder. This is even bigger than Serena Van Der Woodsen (Blake Lively) returning to New York City after time abroad. This is the quarter life crisis of Girls imbued with the sincerity of Friday Night Lights. And, it will all end with a wedding cake being smashed on the ground.