'Dare Me': TV Review

Rafy/USA Network
A little padded, but full of dark twists and pleasures.
12/29/2019

USA's adaptation of Megan Abbott's cheerleader-driven thriller boasts smarts, a seductive energy and an attention-grabbing performance by Marlo Kelly.

When Lifetime premiered the twisty stalker dramedy You last fall, it received largely positive reviews, but barely made a cultural ripple. Then You moved over to its second-window life on Netflix and became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Timing and location still matter on the small screen.

If you're looking for the new You — at the same time as the original You is returning for another season now as a Netflix original — you could do far worse than USA's cheerleading thriller Dare Me. I don't think the ideal audience for this Megan Abbott adaptation is necessarily watching USA, nor is a buried end-of-year premiere date the best time to be finding that audience (or any audience), but Dare Me features a tantalizing blend of guilty-pleasure trashiness, smart genre deconstruction and unfiltered, darkly comic adrenaline. With a promising young cast, consistently confident direction and enough unexpected developments to fuel much (but not close to all) of its 10-episode first season, the series has things for a wide swathe of viewers to enjoy, provided they find it and approach it on its particular terms.

The reductive synopsis of Dare Me will probably only lure a percentage of that audience. Beth (Marlo Kelly), rebellious daughter of a pillhead (Tammy Blanchard) and a prominent local sports booster (Paul Fitzgerald), and Addy (Herizen Guardiola), daughter of a local cop (Amanda Brugel), are cheerleaders at Sutton Grove High School in nowhere-in-particular, Ohio. They're inseparable, verging on co-dependent, and approaching their senior year in a haze of drinking, drug use and casual sex, with hopes of breaking through and making Regionals. Adding to that aspiration is the arrival of a new cheer coach (Willa Fitzgerald's Colette French) — "She's ancient. She's like 28," Beth observes — who initially inspires and rapidly becomes a subject of fascination and then obsession for her young charges.

Taken as a teen drama, Dare Me is already comfortably above-average. There are shades of Euphoria in its depiction of misdirected youthful excess and the way young women can gravitate toward those extremes as an expression of liberation in a society that normalizes (or valorizes) such behavior in boys and treats it as deviant in girls. Despite long stretches composed almost exclusively of shots of sweaty torsos and straining spandex, Dare Me still feels consistently less voyeuristic than Euphoria. A run of primarily female directors starting with pilot helmer Steph Green realign the series' gaze such that the focus is on the athleticism and physicality on display, rather than ogled bodies. At a school in which the football squad is trash, the cheerleaders aren't beholden to traditional chants about defense or team pride, just as they're untethered to gravity. They literally elevate each other. They literally form pyramids with themselves at the top. They semi-literally fly, with no shying away from the bloody consequences when they crash to the ground.

The inevitability of that crash is equally central to Dare Me because, with Abbott and Gina Fattore leading the female-centric writing staff, the series is infused with a noirish sense of pervasive dread and omnivorous seductiveness. The semi-generic blue-collar setting is already one of hollowed-out factories and unoccupied high-rises, a town in which being stuck there is like a form of death and options are so limited that Marine recruiters — led by Zach Roerig's Sgt. Will Mosley — have pride of place where other high schools might instead feature a trophy case. Death or the offer of potential death are the only tickets out and that specter looms over every episode with an ominous miasma so thick that each foreshadowed pool of blood or shattered bottle is accompanied by the ongoing question of, "Is this the nightmarish incident the story is building to?"

This isn't always a successful approach. Dare Me hooks you fast and it closes like a freight train (even if I'd prefer an 11th episode to wrap everything up instead of running the risk of a disappointing second season). But in between there are multiple episodes that overrely on portentous voiceover, slo-motion hallway walks and muscle-straining, back-flipping practices and keep the wheels spinning on the Very Bad Thing you know is coming (and are forced to wait a couple episodes too long to get to).

For long stretches, the only other options for release are sexual and every interaction is shot by cinematographer Zoe White with an intimacy suggesting a kiss could be forthcoming, but that the actual sex is as likely to be dangerous and bad as it is to be erotic and gratifying. Sex and violence, success and failure, everything in Dare Me is driven by desperation.

Think Wild Things, only less exploitative.

Or just think a classed-up neo-noir, veering into Hitchcock. Fitzgerald, a solid embodiment of the basic cable equivalent of a Hitchcock blonde, makes sure you never forget the show's influences. Coach French's TV is, in different episodes, tuned to Double Indemnity and to Vertigo, though she's never actually watching the films because then she might have learned some of the lessons from those classics. Another of the show's ongoing mysteries is whether Coach, Addy or Beth is going to turn out to be the femme fatale, since it's never clear who represents harm to whom, which of these relationships are toxic and which might be nourishing. One thing you never forget is that in a story that acknowledges the shackles imposed on women, the women here have all the power and all the strongest characterizations.

It's possible to praise any of the three leads as the series' breakout and to be impressed by a visual approach relying more heavily on close-ups than typically drive TV. That proximity exposes false notes, and the actresses hit very few.

Fitzgerald is icy and brittle because that's exactly the archetype she's playing and if I didn't warm to her, it's mostly the show's intent and occasionally a function of relative dullness from Roerig and Rob Heaps as the men under her spell. In a similar way, Addy is sometimes infuriating because she's so callow, but that's the character. When she delivers the voiceovers that are rarely as perceptive and enlightening as the hushed tones of her delivery imply, you have to understand that all of her "Coach told me…" pronouncements stem from hero worship directed at an older mentor who probably isn't all that perceptive herself. Guardiola plays that uncertainty well, especially in later episodes, though she's also conspicuously positioned opposite male co-stars so negligible the series forgets them as often as viewers will.

For me, then, Aussie actress Kelly feels like the one having a star-is-born moment. She makes Beth fierce and damaged and covered in bruises that are sometimes visible and sometimes psychological. She's supposed to be the member of the squad you can't take your eyes off of and the camera is, indeed, always pulled to her. Beth is a different person depending on who she's interacting with and Kelly transitions from innocent to animalistic, from little girl lost to predator, with ease. No matter how many people watch Dare Me, I'm sure Kelly is going to get a big bump from this show and whether that means getting a lead in something on The CW or something bigger, I look forward to seeing what comes next.

I will, in general, be curious whom USA can get to watch this show, because even with its flaws and padding and occasional unevenness, it's a show with some real storytelling savvy and a clever approach to material that could be trashy in different hands. Although I compared it to Euphoria and You, I think it's a better show. 

Cast: Willa Fitzgerald, Herizen Guardiola, Marlo Kelly, Rob Heaps, Zach Roerig, Paul Fitzgerald

Adapted by: Megan Abbott and Gina Fattore from the book by Megan Abbott

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA, premiering Dec. 29.