TV’s New ‘Heathers’ Series: Darkest of Black Comedies or Dog Whistle for Trumpsters?

TV’s New ‘Heathers’ Series: Darkest of Black Comedies or Dog Whistle for Trumpsters?

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The bile and satire that ran through the original cult film Heathers in 1989 was a byproduct of the hegemony of the Reagan years. It is possible the episodic TV reboot (premiering on the Paramount Network July 10, after its March 7 premiere date was delayed over the Parkland shooting) is a response to the Trump era, or is it a magnification of it? It’s hard to tell after watching only a single episode of the Heathers series, but — to be honest — it could go either way.

So what has changed at Westerburg High School since Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) and Jason Dean (Christian Slater) went on their murdering spree against the conformity and cruelty of the popular cliques? Plenty, it seems.

The new Heathers — comprised of the “body-positive” Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), the genderqueer Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) and the biracial faux lesbian Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) — are terrorizing fellow students with identity politics and liberal bromides (the left’s version of bullying, replete with social media shaming).

And while that’s a fertile source of humor in this new Heathers series, the only real kick it produces in the pilot is the sight of jock Ram (Cayden Boyd) shirtless when Heather C calls him out for wearing a mascot T-shirt with the word “Squaw” on it. (She also forces him, as penance, to approach a Christian student and ask her to do anal with him, which would have been far funnier if she had accepted instead of slapping him.)

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As in the original, it falls to Veronica (played in this new series by Grace Victoria Cox) and JD (James Scully) to rage against the new hierarchy. But what exactly is that here? So far, and giving credence to reports that this might be the first Trumpian TV show, it seems to be a reaction to liberal bias and the rise of what alt-right websites call SJWs (social justice warriors).

Showrunner and writer Jason Micallef insists this is a misreading of the intent of the series. The creators have said it is not “a power fantasy about a straight white couple murdering minorities,” yet we will have to wait and see.

The cast of the Heathers series (from left): Brendan Scannell, Melanie Field, Jasmine Mathews, James Scully, Grace Victoria Cox

It’s not easy to adapt a beloved film (a beloved anything, for that matter) into a different medium. And, yes, like nearly every other human alive in the ’80s, I loved the original film (though, for a black comedy, it didn’t go far enough).

Grace Victoria Cox sounds uncannily like Winona Ryder in the “Dear Diary” voiceovers, but so far she’s also a blank. And after all the complaining about Christian Slater’s slavish Jack Nicholson impersonation in the original, his presence is much missed here. James Scully is pretty and has a bit of underlying menace, but he’s also saddled with the most programmatic dialogue. He speaks like a mouthpiece, not a character, but a mouthpiece for what is still unclear.

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The series pays sly homage to the original in visual and verbal ways, and some of the film’s best loved lines make an appearance in the pilot (though, sadly, not “I love my dead gay son”). Yet the dialogue — heightened and fresh in the late ’80s — comes across as stilted and ostentatious now.

These new Heathers deserve their own lingo, not a rehash. And the next few episodes of the Heathers series better quickly dispel the notion that this series could be a rallying cry for the alt-right. Otherwise, we might all be quoting “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” without irony.

Heathers premieres July 10 on the Paramount Network.

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