heathers tv show review

(This review was written before the Paramount Network made the decision to delay the premiere of Heathers until later this year. As the pilot episode is still available on the network’s site, we have made the decision to run the review.)

Michael Lehmann’s 1988 high school masterpiece Heathers, with a laser-sharp script by Daniel Waters, is ripe with poppy bon mots that still feel devilishly revolutionary, one of those rare late-decade gems that transcends its era while remaining appropriately of-the-time. The movie follows a clique of nasty high school girls – all named Heather – who terrorize their peers, challenging them to lunchroom dares, getting away with their own sort of mean girl terrorism. They’re flanked by a newbie to the group, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), who seems both appreciative of her newfound status, and cautiously cynical of its effect on her morality. The Heathers and Veronica speak in a referential pop culture code that modern imitators – from Diablo Cody to Ryan Murphy – have helped solidify as Hollywood “teen speak.” The lines drip with irony and humor, but remain unparalleled in originally. This is the film that first asked “what’s your damage?” That told us to “fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” It also popularized the descriptor “how very.”

Heathers has always seemed an untouchable entity in the pantheon of ‘80s classics. Post-Columbine, how do you remake a movie where teen-on-teen violence is funny? The original is, after all, all about Veronica and her sociopathic boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater) murdering their classmates then framing their deaths as suicide. In one early scene, J.D. pulls a gun on two students. Later, he and Veronica shoot and kill two jocks and write a suicide note that erroneously outs them as gay lovers. The finale of Heathers has Veronica trapping J.D. in the school and blowing up the gymnasium – and him – with a bomb. That content was ghoulishly appropriate in the ‘80s. But in an era where school gun violence is a weekly occurrence, it doesn’t have the same critical bite.

Which brings us to the Paramount Network’s new anthology adaptation of Heathers, a series hitting airwaves at the exact wrong time, just a few weeks after one of the deadliest school shootings in history.

The show evades much of the gun violence from the original, but glamorizes teen suicide, perhaps more so than the original. It also inverts the stereotypical girl squad from the film. The Heathers in this version aren’t thin and white; they’re a self-identified fat girl, a black lesbian, and a genderqueer redhead. The sort of kids that would be punchlines in the original are now making the status quo. It’s a concept that might have worked if the show had any sort of insight of the actuality of Millennial youth. Instead, it mocks the social media platforms that are, in reality, galvanizing young people into political action. It mocks body positivity. It mocks queer identification. It sympathies with its new Veronica, a pretty blonde girl who struggles to get into college because she isn’t “different” enough. It’s about as mind-numbing a concept as you can imagine. The poor white straight kids! It’s so hard being them!

To bring it back to the original’s way with words, certain famous lines remain, but the show inverts others. “How very” becomes “how just,” and it’s hard not to laugh at how on-the-nose a metaphor that is for the difference between the two properties. The original was so “very” revolutionary, biting, and self-aware; it critiqued teen culture without criticizing it. The Heathers TV series is only “just” squeaking by, a try-hard attempt at satire that’ll make you long for that chainsaw.

This isn’t the teen show we need right now

The Heathers pilot is pretty much a play-by-play of the original film, some of it updated to its modern setting, some of it painstakingly devoted to its namesake for almost no reason. (Are Slushies and corn nuts actually popular among the teenage set these days? Asking for a friend.) It opens with a new version of “Que Sera, Sera” – falling short of the original’s haunting Syd Straw intro – and the suicide of J.D.’s mother (Shannen Doherty, who also played Heather Duke in the 1988 film). Her death is referred to in the original, but here we see it played out. The series choosing to open on a sequence that humanizes its villain is its first grave mistake, although I’m not totally sure that J.D. is meant to be the villain here, which is…an even worse problem. (More on that later.)

We’re then introduced to our new clique: lead mean girl Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), her cronies Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) and Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews), and Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox). The actors all have a lot of fun with their larger-than-life roles, but turning three would-be-outcasts into high school bullies just doesn’t land the way it’s trying to. It brings to mind the 21 Jump Street remake, which more successfully inverted the teen movie paradigm; in that film, the popular kids were no longer jocks, but hipsters. That’s a more ingenious take on how the times have changed.

Here, it’s implied that social media has given its Heathers a god complex; Heather Chandler wields her high-follower Twitter count like a weapon, threatening a fellow student in a t-shirt with an offensive Native American sports mascot. She forces him to take it off in the lunchroom and then say something sexually offensive to a religious girl seated nearby – or else face the wrath of her followers. He complies, but she later posts a picture of him wearing the shirt anyway. When Veronica protests, Heather explains herself: “I’m helping him. Sure, his life will suck for a few weeks and maybe he’ll lose his scholarship and won’t be able to go to college, but in the end he’ll realize that disrespecting disadvantaged people by wearing that shirt is wrong.”

There’s actually a nugget of a good idea buried somewhere in that sentiment. Heathers wants to explore outcry culture, and that social media gives young people an enormous amount of power they don’t always know how to handle. But – hear me out here – wouldn’t it still be more salient to give that venomous spurn to one of the stereotypically “hot” and vain girls of the original? It seems like a better idea to critique straight, white, model-hot allies than to assume the power-holders are the kids that defy social norms? This Heathers imagines that life is magically way easier for fat kids, for queer kids, for black kids in the social media age, which couldn’t possibly be more ridiculous. It’s also set in suburban Ohio, a state that voted overwhelmingly red in the last presidential election.

Watching the first five episodes – which also horribly mishandle the reverse-outing of Heather McNamara, turn Heather Duke into a fully misrepresented genderqueer stereotype, and does something so profoundly stupid with Heather Chandler that I’m still rolling my eyes – I was reminded a lot of The CW’s Riverdale. (Even the poster feels like a cheap homage.) That show, which hit the zeitgeist last year and is a hit among both teens and the adult set, shares DNA with the original Heathers. The dialogue is equally pulpy, and it’s set in a sort of dreamy fantasy world of neon and junk food culture. But it’s a teen show that rests firmly on its influences – from Twin Peaks to John Hughes movies to the Archie comics its based on – while forging its own iconography. The kids can be quippy and self-destructive, but they’re ultimately good to one another. It knows how to have its diatribe cake and eat it too.

Heathers, on the other hand, is far too indebted to its source material to stand on its own legs, and is willfully ignorant its moment in history. It makes you long for Riverdale, but also Ryan Murphy’s Glee and Scream Queens, shows that – though varied in quality – were respectfully offensive and only occasionally tone deaf.

Heathers has a major Veronica and J.D. problem

Honestly, I could get over some of the issues with the trio if they were contracted with a lead couple that made any sort of sense. But our fucked up love birds Veronica and J.D. (James Scully) have virtually zero chemistry and charisma. Part of the success of the original came from the electric tension between Ryder and Slater, who were both beautiful but otherworldly. Cox and Scully don’t have that same magnetic energy. Both are bland and lifeless, and the show tries to hard to make us like Veronica and doesn’t try hard enough to make us hate J.D.

And boy oh boy is this J.D. insufferable. The clever trick of the ‘80s Heather is that it teetered the line between J.D. as a manipulative but sensical lover and a full-blown maniac. His modus operandi was disguised in clever drags at his self-obsessed generation. (“Chaos is what killed the dinosaurs, darling.”) But Scully’s J.D. is about as subtle as a heart attack. As soon as he meets Veronica, he’s already on one about how flawed society is and blah blah blah. The character’s toxic masculinity was believably intoxicating in 1988. In 2018, you have to wonder why the hell Veronica isn’t running for the door.

But it’s not like Veronica is much better. The stress of being too “normal,” and desperately maintaining her status as a “good person” just doesn’t hold. In one laughable moment in the pilot, Veronica’s classic line from the original – “Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up.” – is changed to “Lick it up, fatty,” which she hurls at Heather Chandler in a moment of rage. It falls out of her mouth in a way that stuns her; she’s not the type of person to say that sort of thing. She’s a good person.

A smarter show would utilize this discrepancy in character better. Heathers tries to. Veronica’s evolving self-awareness is supposed to be a through-line. But only “just.” Like so much of this reimagining, it doesn’t have enough self-awareness of its own to properly mitigate the flaws of its lead. Instead, Veronica feels like a blank note in her own story.

There’s still hope for improvement

I’ll say this: I found the first five episodes of the show very watchable, despite my calcifying lack of trust in where it’s headed. Once it moves away from the structure of the film, it has a little more fun. I love the inversion of Veronica’s former best friend, Betty Finn (yes, like Riverdale, there are a Betty and Veronica – both are plays on the Archie digests). And despite my discomfort with how their characters are treated, Brendan Scannell and Jasmine Mathews are two great young actors with a lot of personality.

I’m not exactly optimistic about the prognosis of Heathers, but I’ll watch just in case. Still, it’s hard to shake just how poorly the show lands when, in real life, teenagers are saving the world instead of making it this petty and ridiculous.

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