The easy argument that Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, with its seminal script by Daniel Waters, was one of the most influential films of the ‘80s, would have to be coupled with the equally easy argument that most of the youthful black comedies inspired by Heathers were pretty awful. Fed to a generation raised on the comedy-infused sincerity of John Hughes, Heathers was a bracing jolt of venomous irony, cartoonishly clever violence and meticulously composed insults. Much of the art that tried to match its template failed on several of those levels.
With nearly 30 years to study and learn from the film, Paramount Network’s TV take on Heathers is a one-note disappointment, taking certain surface-level detours from the movie and adding precious little scathing insight of its own. Only the last of five episodes sent to critics exhibited a distinct perspective, an unreasonable expenditure of time to wait to get to anything better than a pale imitation.
Creator Jason Micallef starts with a semi-interesting premise inversion. Instead of the preppy, pretty kids ruling Westerburg High, the all-powerful Heathers clique is a gang of hegemony-busting outsiders led by body positive bad girl Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), flanked by gender-queer ginger Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) and biracial lesbian Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews). Rebelling against that authority are a conventionally blonde and attractive Veronica (Grace Victoria Cox) and new kid JD (James Scully), who looks like every male lead of every CW drama ever. Before you know it Westerburg is experiencing a rash of teenage “suicides,” and before you can say “Don’t do it!” a body count of characters you never really got to know is piling up. Much of the plot of the movie is burned through quickly and the deviations, while occasionally amusing, are too heavily telegraphed to be surprising.
Having the high school tyranny associated with a gang of students who, in a different era, might have been marginalized produces a dark and almost reactionary undercurrent in which the disenfranchised aren’t being bullied, but rather are wielding identity politics and political correctness as weapons. Is that the point the show wants to make? That a pendulum has swung too far? Or is it just an accidental underlying message? It’s unclear. Is it meaningful that “Martha Dumptruck” has effectively become “Trailer Parker,” moving stigma from body type to economic status? Shrug.
Generally any consideration of how this Heathers is paralleling what was taboo in 1989 with what is taboo today does little to enrich the show, which prefers to focus its themes on the superficiality bred by a generation living on social media and the hollowness that comes from being forced to build a brand when you haven’t yet built an identity.
A more thoughtful series might explore the irony of the oppressed becoming the oppressors and try to figure out how that ties into what the original movie might or might not have been saying about pre-Backlash feminism, but …
“We’re not doing irony anymore, keep up,” Heather Chandler declares in the pilot.
Fair enough. They’re mostly doing campy, catty and snide, all rolled up in derivative high-toned style. Early episodic director Leslye Headland loves a slo-mo hallway walk almost as much as she loves glossy, eye-popping color.
The new Heathers aims for the same sort of wittiness as Waters brought to the movie, and instead what we mostly get is little doses of salaciousness punctuated by easy-laugh profanities like “clit” or “queef” — each used multiple times for diminished impact. It’s the stuff of a hastily composed tweet, not rapier-like wit. The decision to pepper early episodes with dialogue lifted from the movie is a huge miscalculation, firstly because it makes comparisons completely impossible to avoid and secondly because it only draws attention to the consideration of every word in “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” — seriously, every word adds something to why that sentence is funny — and how shoddy most of the TV lines are in comparison.
The actors playing the modern Heathers aren’t bad, mind you, it’s just that Field and and Scannell are devouring meaty speeches like it’s wagyu when it’s actually Taco Bell beef. Field and Scannell are, in fact, at their best in scenes that show Heather and Heather’s respective vulnerabilities, rather than their outré public personae.
The show’s writers have had the not-incorrect revelation that a 2018 version of JD wouldn’t be nearly as enticingly cool and might actually read as a 4chan-lurking tool, which doesn’t come through in Scully’s ultra-bland performance at all. There’s no reason for Veronica to be drawn to JD and equally no reason for him to be drawn to her, and Scully and Cox have no chemistry. Being bored by JD and Veronica is a reasonable reading of the movie. Foregrounding that dullness and yet keeping it at the center of the show is less reasonable.
The series’ funniest quips have actually been given to some of the adult characters, including the school principal, played by the impeccably oblivious Kurt Fuller, and Heather Duke’s stripper mom Jade, blessed here by Selma Blair’s superb withering deadpan. And speaking of the adults, Shannen Doherty makes a cameo early enough in the pilot to again make it impossible to avoid comparisons.
Here’s the thing that has to be said: The Heathers movie was about the uncomfortable disconnect between being a teen — in other words having your life in front of you — and facing mortality head-on. The main characters may be a little goth or a little James Dean-obsessed, but the murder/suicides force them to confront actual death. As current events all too frequently remind us, high school students today face mortality on a daily basis. Their daily routine includes the need to discuss, prepare for and, in the absolutely worst scenarios, experience school shootings.
This is a reality that Micallef and company probably couldn’t (or maybe shouldn’t?) have mined humor from, but it’s almost certainly where the resonance of a 2018 Heathers almost had to exist and, unfortunately, that barely comes through. Handling the place of school shootings in contemporary life within Heathers was a no-guts-no-glory proposition, but so was adapting the movie for TV in the first place. That fifth episode, directed by Adam Silver, is shot in its entirety from a first-person perspective, underlining its point by having the POV character playing a first-person school shooting video game, a glib acknowledgement of reality that begs for clever interrogation or introspection that never comes. It’s still, by far, the most interesting episode in the half-season I’ve seen, and it’s not worth the time to get there.
Network: Paramount Network
Cast: Grace Victoria Cox, Melanie Field, James Scully, Brendan Scannell, Jasmine Mathews
Developed For TV By: Jason Micallef
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Paramount Network, premiering March 7.