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The satirical reboot of the 1980s cult hit film has been scrapped at the former Spike TV as Viacom aggressively searches for a new home for the anthology. The decision comes four months after Paramount Network opted to push the anthology from its planned March 7 premiere to a launch later this year in a move originally designed to be respectful to the victims, families and loved ones following the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. A new premiere date was never set. (Sources say Paramount Network considered an early July return for Heathers, but then the Houston-area Santa Fe school shooting happened.)
“This is a high school show, we’re blowing up the school, there are guns in the school, it’s a satire and there are moments of teachers having guns. It’s hitting on so many hot topics. This company can’t be speaking out of both sides of its mouth, saying the youth movement is important for us and we’ve done all these wonderful things to support that and at the same time, we’re putting on a show that we’re not comfortable with,” said Keith Cox, Paramount Network president of development and production. Cox, who spoke at length with The Hollywood Reporter about the decision (full interview below), developed the show originally for TV Land and brought it with him to corporate sibling Paramount Network once the cable network was rebranded as Viacom’s general entertainment hub. Sources say Paramount Network believed so strongly in the creative that the cabler nearly renewed the series for a second season weeks after Parkland. “The combination of a high school show with these very dark moments didn’t feel right,” Cox said.
The decision to pull the plug on the anthology — which was poised to feature a largely new cast in its second season — came after multiple meetings internally with Paramount Network president Kevin Kay, Cox and senior vp development Brad Gardner, as well as Viacom corporate execs including CEO Bob Bakish. Ultimately, the decision to not air Heathers on any Viacom platform was made after the youth-focused conglomerate supported the movement that sprang out of Parkland by going dark across all of its brands for 17 minutes in a show of support for the victims in the Florida high school shooting. Those connected with the series were informed of the decision Friday afternoon. Sources say multiple castmembers are relieved that the series will not currently air.
Meanwhile, Cox and company are actively trying to find a new home for the drama, which follows a new set of popular-yet-evil Heathers as the outcast become high school royalty, as Paramount Network executives strongly believe in the Heathers reboot. The original TV Land pilot was filmed in November 2016 — as Cox says, “before the climate changed.” (Heathers was originally envisioned as a half-hour comedy, but was expanded to an hour after the pilot came in at 44 minutes and network execs decided to make it TV Land’s first hourlong show.)
Production on the 10-episode first season has long been completed, and a writers room was opened months ago and has nearly completed work on a sophomore season, which is tied to the first but set in a new location — and one that isn’t a high school. (Sources say it was set in the 1700s and was to revolve around Marie Antoinette, with most of the key stars returning in new roles.)
Newcomers James Scully and Grace Victoria Cox star as J.D. and Veronica, the roles originally played by Christian Slater and Winona Ryder in the 1988 pic. Jasmine Mathews, Brendan Scannell and Melanie Field starred as the three Heathers. Original Heathers star Shannen Doherty guest-stars in the pilot, which was directed by Leslye Headland and written by showrunner Jason Micallef.
In his review, THR TV critic Daniel Fienberg said, “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.” (Watch the trailer, below.)
The series, like the original film, was to feature a number of suicides — something Micallef said his comedic drama intentionally doesn’t handle responsibly as he sought to tell a “dark and edgy” story that “shows [teens] as they really are.” Unlike the film, the executive producer hoped to explore the why behind the suicides. “Like the original, we do hit every hot-button issue, including suicide. … The idea is to take the spirit and reset it and run with it. The first season is a jumping-off point using the original film and then we’re totally rebooting; it’s a completely different show from the movie. [The movie] became a cult classic; it was clearly ahead of its time,” Micallef told reporters in January at TCA. “It shows American society in a way that is truthful but that you don’t see that often, which is one of the things that makes something stick; now was the perfect time for [the reboot].”
Heathers was originally developed by Cox and Gardner for TV Land, before both executives added oversight of Paramount Network as part of the latter cable network’s rebranding from Spike TV to become Viacom’s general entertainment destination. Several series that were originally developed by and set to air on TV Land were moved over to Paramount Network, including Heathers, Alicia Silverstone’s American Woman and Melissa McCarthy-produced Nobodies. Heathers was poised to follow limited series Waco as Paramount Network rolls out its scripted fare. Instead, the cable network will next launch Kevin Costner drama Yellowstone, the first series picked up and developed specifically for the rebranded network. Since the decision to delay Heathers, Paramount Network has fast-tracked a reboot of First Wives Club. That project was originally picked up to pilot at TV Land with Alyson Hannigan, among others, attached. The new take will hail from a different writer (Girls Trip‘s Tracy Oliver) and feature an inclusive cast (which has yet to be determined).
Paramount Network’s Heathers was the third attempt to bring the beloved cult film to the small screen. Bravo previously teamed with Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City, The Big C) in 2012 for a reboot that centered on “the Ashleys,” the next generation of mean girls and the daughters of the Heathers from the big-screen take. The hourlong drama, which hailed from Sony Pictures Television and Lakeshore’s Rosenberg and Lucchesi, was scrapped in 2013. That marked the second time Bicks and Lakeshore took on Heathers after previously selling the project to Fox in 2009.
Below, Cox speaks exclusively with THR about the decision to shop Heathers elsewhere.
Walk us through the decision to scrap Heathers.
To be clear, I love this series and I believe in the franchise. It’s an anthology and was unique for us. The goal is not to scrap it but sell it. We shot this in November 2016 for TV Land. We’ve been working on this for a couple years. The cultural landscape has changed so fast. After Parkland, we as a company — which I applaud — we were in unison with the National School Walkout and went dark for 17 minutes [across all Viacom channels]. We were going to air and we paused that. It was the right thing to do — Viacom’s brands are youth brands. We have a unique relationship with youth and this movement after Parkland was so big and kept growing and we’ve been a partner in that. We were going to air in March and hit pause and then had Santa Fe. We knew we were doing a very bold show that pushes boundaries. It’s a satire but it’s very bold. We knew that, and then this movement happened and we as a company applauded that movement. This was a very difficult decision. We had multiple meetings, and in the end, we didn’t feel comfortable right now airing the series and I’m not sure when there might be a time that we as a youthful brand at Viacom would feel comfortable. That said, we are very diligently trying to sell this because we believe in the show.
How much of this decision was based specifically on the content? The season ends with the high school being blown up, which is similar to the movie’s ending. We’ve heard the decision came from Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, as you, Kevin Kay and other insiders there all wanted to air it and clearly believe in the show.
We’re aware of the movie, which was done pre-Columbine. In the end, we didn’t want to butcher the show or make it something that it’s not, which isn’t fair to the writers, producers and cast. The goal is to sell it and keep the franchise alive. We’ve had discussions with corporate people. But this is something we’ve all talked about. I love the show. This is a high school show, we’re blowing up the school, there are guns in the school, it’s a satire and there are moments of teachers having guns. It’s hitting on so many hot topics. This company can’t be speaking out of both sides of its mouth, saying the youth movement is important for us and we’ve done all these wonderful things to support that and at the same time, we’re putting on a show that we’re not comfortable with. That would be in conflict. We’ve had 20 meetings on this. We knew the show we were making, we made it two years ago. We were excited to go there with some of the bold topics. Even the movie was done at a time before the culture changed. We want to do risky and bold shows that push buttons and we will; it has to be great. Heathers was shot beautifully with a great cast and we’re proud of the show. It’s a high school show, it’s got elements that young kids today are aggressive in trying to change and we as a company are with them on that. We paused it once, and we just don’t feel comfortable airing it.
How much did the merger talks between Viacom and CBS play a role?
It never came up. It’s a TV show and it’s a satire and it is dark, but the comments were so similar. That’s what it came down to. If it wasn’t a high school show, we may not be having this conversation.
Did you discuss changing the setting form high school and reshooting parts of it?
Absolutely. We couldn’t take it out of high school. We looked at the episodes but the DNA, which makes it great … We knew the show is polarizing, as the movie was. But we went through each episode and it would have butchered it to not have the ending. There’s one episode where they’re playing a video game and it’s all done in jest with the teachers having guns. It’s in the tone of the movie but tonally today, you run risk of, “Are people seeing it for the satire or are they seeing it as insensitive?” ABC did a really bold move [with the cancelation of Roseanne]. This is a bold move and we stand behind it. It doesn’t mean we don’t love the show, and we are trying hard to set it up at a place that then can keep the franchise going.
Where are you taking it?
Numerous places. I can’t say yet because we’re in the middle of it.
Paramount Network is an ad-supported basic cable channel and Heathers doesn’t seem to be the kind of show that can air on broadcast. What kind of outlets are you talking to that would air a show with this kind of content? Even Netflix took a lot of heat for season one of 13 Reasons Why over its depiction of teen suicide. Will Heathers go to an ad-supported buyer?
And Netflix isn’t ad-supported and they don’t have that extra layer [of having to rely on advertisers and ad revenue]. We’re talking to everyone: SVOD, premium cable, and we may have even spoken to a broadcast network. It might go to an ad-supported buyer but it might not. There’s a few in the mix and they’ve shown interest. SVOD places take more risks and can get away with more.
Is Netflix among the outlets you’re looking to?
They are definitely in conversations. Absolutely. Out of respect to the producers, we want this to be a franchise and selling it to someone who will maybe do five or six seasons of it was our first job.
The writers room had already begun for season two, despite not having a formal renewal. Will it remain open as you try to find a new home for Heathers?
The room is open now and since we moved it after Parkland we could have never made a season two, so we thought, “Let’s start a room early.” They’re in now and closer to the end of prepping season two. The goal is when we sell this, you get a package: season one and all the development for season two. You’re buying a franchise.
Lakeshore Entertainment, the executive producers on Heathers, own the rights to the movie. Will Viacom remain an owner on the series when and if it finds a new home?
That’s all in the negotiation but I’d love to be part of it. We want to protect our producers. This is a difficult decision and they’re not going to be, but I don’t think they’re going to be shocked because they were aware after Parkland that the company got behind the movement.
Would you make this show if Micallef came in today with this pitch?
This is a show I bought for TV Land originally. I don’t know if I would buy this for Paramount Network. It’s noisy, it’s great, it’s quality and premium and based on a movie. It felt young for Paramount Network. Once I got the Paramount Network job, I’d have thought twice. But for TV Land, we needed noisy and something that would push the boundaries. We would have done the same thing if this were still on TV Land.
What would you do differently if this version of Heathers — a satire, teachers with guns, blowing up the school — was pitched today?
I’d say, “Why does it have to be set in high school?” We’re Paramount Network, we focus on 18-49 — maybe it’s something else. We didn’t know where we were going to set it originally; it could have been high school or college or like Stepford Wives. Heathers really are just a group of people and maybe we would have had a larger discussion about the setting since we’re not chasing high school shows at Paramount since our demo is older. The setting would have been the conversation because of our demo.
Considering season two on the anthology is almost entirely mapped out, is that set at a different high school?
Season two is not set in high school but it’s still bold and pushing boundaries. But you really need season one for season two to make sense — you can’t flip them. There is some connective tissue, so to speak, without giving away too much.