News · TV

The Death of the ‘Heathers’ Revival

Killing this show would be like offing the Wicked Witch of the West… wait East. West!
By  · Published on March 1st, 2018

Killing this show would be like offing the Wicked Witch of the West… wait East. West!

Paramount Network has announced the decision to hold off on premiering its Heathers TV series, “in light of the recent tragic events in Florida and out of respect for the victims, their families and loved ones.” The news came 14 days after the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 people dead, including students and teachers. While there are regular school shootings all the time these days, the one in Parkland has led to greater attention and discourse than most, whether because of the number killed or thanks to the young activists from Stoneman Douglas who won’t let this be just another statistic to move on from easily.

Heathers, which is based on the 1988 cult classic of the same name, involves students killing other students in a darkly satirical play on popularity, suicide, and other teenage issues. The original movie is one of a kind, despite its influence on other high school movies of varying quality over the last 30 years. And not only is it very much a priceless gem of an artifact from its time, but ever since the Columbine tragedy, its brand of lampooning school violence has been difficult to bear for a lot of people. The fact that there is a constant flow of school shootings and other comparable incidents in America every year, Heathers is just not something to be redone.

Of course, Hollywood can never leave well enough alone with anything of some degree of popularity. Over the years, there’s been talk of a sequel revisiting the surviving characters (led by Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer) in adulthood. Or a remake. Or a TV series. The last idea eventually set in, but all kinds of twists to the denizens of Westerberg High promised something different than a straight rehash of the highly quotable original. The title characters were to include a person of color, a plus-size queen bee, and a genderqueer member to round out the trio. Once the trailer came out, however, the diversity and inclusion elements looked all sorts of wrong. Wait, we realized, the progressively written types are the bad guys. Not a good idea.

The first wave of reviews for the Heathers series arrived late last week and confirmed the fears. One publication called it a “Trumpian, LGBT-bashing nightmare.” Another critic made it seem the assignment to review the show was one of the worst experiences she’s ever had in her life. Many are saying it’s cringeworthy, from its dialogue to the updated take on the plot. On Rotten Tomatoes, the show is at just 14% approval, thanks to one positive review via TVLine. Worst of all, at least for those on the other side politically and those who work on the series defending its “satire” against the backwards identity politics slams, Trump supporters indeed love the show.

Of course, anything can be claimed as satire even if it doesn’t play as such. There are some instances where art is so darkly brilliant that not everyone gets it, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Even on paper, as described by its critics, Heathers sounds like it could be ironic in its changes where the blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl is now feeling the oppressed outcast of high school. The show could have even played as one of those satires where the target doesn’t see the joke and embraces the material mocking them as positive. People who do believe white people are becoming the new underprivileged and discriminated-against minority in America.

I could watch it myself, and maybe I will eventually when, or if, it ever does premiere, but in some cases I can just take my peers’ word for it. I don’t need to watch I Love You, Daddy to accept that its pull from release plans is deserved both because of Louis CK’s sexual misconduct charges and the premise of the movie being creepy anyway. We probably don’t need to see Heathers to find out if it’s actually offensive to others. If it does, it does. Of course, the original movie offended people, as well (hi, Dad!), the way most sharp satire ought to.

The timing of the announcement for the delay is strange given how long after Parkland it comes, with meanwhile a lot of negative reviews and buzz hardly helping in the days in between. Perhaps Paramount sees both as a combination of reasoning to postpone the series. This is the sort of thing, though, that may just never be a good fit. Sadly, we’re going to have other school shootings in the future. The current pattern all but guarantees it, unfortunately. As a result, Heathers could be seen as being in poor taste regardless of its detailed issues no matter when it finally arrives. What will they tell parents of victims if another Parkland happens after the show debuts? Fuck it if they can’t take a joke, Sarge… Plus, it will still be the same show critics are swaying audiences against anyway.

So, what if this just gets buried forever? Not held indefinitely. Not sold cheaply and dumped on Netflix. Not reworked in whatever way seems possible. Teenage suicide, don’t do it. But bad TV series offing itself? Sure thing. We just want our entertainment to be a nicer place. Amen. Did that sound bitchy?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.