- Ian Waldie
Review: HEATHERS (2018) is Post-Columbine Nihilism Done Right
There has been nothing but controversy surrounding the new Heathers reboot, which aired (most of it, anyway) over a five-night binge on the Paramount Network during the weekend of October 25 th . The show’s first wave of controversy stemmed from the premise itself: three people from normally disenfranchised groups were the new Heathers, which, in the eyes of the Twitter-verse, meant that there was no room for nuance and that the show planned to paint the queer, plus-sized, and black communities as hostile bullies. The show’s trailer raked up more dislikes than likes on YouTube, with most of the comments consisting of grievances from each of the aforementioned groups. Also, some Heathers purists just really did not want their favorite movie remade with a new spin. Fair enough, but those who refused to watch are missing out.
The second wave of controversy was at the hands of Paramount Network itself when they delayed the anthology series’ originally scheduled airdate of March 7th to July 10th. That bombshell dropped because of the show’s touchy subject matter, which the Internet then found out would deal with school shootings, teen suicide and lots of teen violence. As the series would have premiered in the wake of the Parkland school mass shooting, the network delayed it, only to scrap it altogether after the Santa Fe school mass shooting that occurred on May 18th . Executives at Paramount Network originally said the postponement and initial cancellation were out of respect for the victims’ families, which is fine and understandable to a degree. But when the network finally decided to air the series over five nights after failing to sell it, and when another mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh just so happened to occur (WhO KnoWZ WhY TH!S Iz HAPPENING, RITE!?) during said airing, resulting in the removal of two episodes from the lineup (and a completely banned finale), their true feelings about the series were exposed: they never actually believed in it. That’s a shame, because Heathers 2018 is pretty much a masterpiece.
Like its predecessor, the show is about the three popular Heathers wreaking havoc upon Westerburg High School. This time the head honcho, Heather Chandler, is now a plus-sized rich girl and social media empress played by theater force, Melanie Field. Heather Duke is now a genderqueer male originally named Heath (played by the spectacular Brendan Scannell), and Heather McNamara (played stunningly by Jasmine Mathews) is a black lesbian.
Grace Victoria Cox and James Scully play Veronica Sawyer and Jason “J.D.” Dean, the heteronormative head-over-heels in love couple who are over identity politics and “being someone” in the modern era. That specific detail, which is expressed clearly in the show’s pilot, is where many LGBT members, minorities, and woke media figures jumped ship. Of course, these critics mistakenly thought of both Veronica and JD as the protagonists (which, offensive) and their views as aligning succinctly with that of the show’s creators and writers, who happen to be all minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The thing about both this iteration of Heathers and the original is that there are no protagonists. No one is an infallible hero in this vicious satire, and because of that, the real villains become more evident than ever, even more poignantly in this version.
As New Yorker critic Tony Patterson pointed out, Heathers 2018 is a “hostile farce.” Basically, it will disappoint you if you are looking for a moral compass to cling to. The queers, the fat kids, the adults, and people of color all say and do messed up, problematic shit. Because guess what? Everyone, to varying degrees, says and does messed up, problematic shit. As any good satire must do, Heathers is holding a mirror up to society and telling us we’re all doomed — to a gloriously heightened degree. Of course, Heathers diatribe is written so brilliantly tongue-in-cheek that you can’t help but clap when one of the Heathers pulls off a witty, oddly specific and unconventional burn. The writers pay homage to some of the most iconic lines from the original, but they are even more successful in creating a whole new language of their own — at one point Heather Duke (Brendan Scanell) calls her simpleminded boyfriend a “sentient woven belt.” Later in the series, on an apology tour, Heather Chandler says to a cheerleader, “I’m sorry I called you a moldy potato bug orgy.” The Heathers get the best and funniest lines; they give the best performances; and although the mean-girl archetype is falling out of favor with the popular consensus, the optics of three disenfranchised people ruling the school, walking down the halls looking over-the-top chic to a “Fuck you!” inspired song is empowering, no matter how problematic. The Heathers fight and do despicable things to one another and the people around them in order to climb the social hierarchy, but they’re still smarter, more stylish, and more socially conscious than anyone else. From a representation standpoint, that is rare. And, as the original does, the Heathers have individual backgrounds that explain just why they behave the way they do, something any seemingly confident, aspirational person can relate to. On the other hand, JD and Veronica serve as the perfect agnostic foil to the Heathers’ reign — they cringe at the Heathers’ most base acts, yet they torture each other with some deliciously toxic behavior of their own, depicting a swirling and spiraling romance that leaves them with a body count and a pool of blood. The show is ridiculously smart in the way it makes the viewer relish in the couple’s warped love affair, but also makes the viewer feel a tinge of guilt for doing so.
For some, Heathers may be a tough pill to swallow when it comes to the way it addresses values, beliefs, and talking points existing in the modern-day opinion factory that is our national discourse. It is brutally honest covering everything from the way people perform grief and mourning, to how we may sometimes argue for progress and human rights in more self-involved ways than we’d like to admit. Many of the side characters embody the pointless self-denigration and idolization of others we all fall victim to. In one episode, as the camera pans in the school hallway, we hear lovable loser Dylen Lutz say, “I swear if I don’t get a thigh gap by prom, I am going to kill myself.” In the same episode, after being invited to a tone-deaf mourning party in Heather Chandler’s honor, one of the “Gay Nerds,” Kyle, is overheard saying amongst his friends, “Heather Chandler killing herself is the best thing that’s ever happened to us!” Everyone is a target in Heathers’ modus operandi of hard truth-telling. It’s not going to hold your hair back while you throw up at the basement party, it’s going to tell you you’re acting messy.
The adults of Heathers are up to something much more dire than petty squabbling and fighting for the most Instagram followers. Above all else, the series’ priority is to stress that no one is more painfully unaware or idiotic than the adults. Throughout the season, Westerburg High’s administrators and the students’ parents serve as prime examples of the Boomer generation attempting (and failing) to grasp social issues affecting the youth. It’s truly telling that the Paramount Network pulled three crucial episodes of Heathers from airing under the pretense that they were protecting America. Heathers addresses violence in America and it does it right; it does not claim to have the answers, but it sure as hell knows what the WRONG answers are. When the school board decides to arm each teacher with a gun after the school’s statue of an engineer of genocide, General Westerburg, is blown to bits overnight, a faculty death soon follows and it is met (hilariously by Drew Droege and Deanna Cheng) with ambivalent shrugs. When we then see the school’s annual active shooter drill, it’s treated like a game to be won: a dangerous blueprint is provided for impressionable kids participating in the walkthrough and students either “survive” or “go to Heaven.” Mind you, “Heaven” is the school cafeteria decked out with games and cotton candy machines, so naturally, everyone wants to die. Flinch at the blunt handling of topics like suicide and school violence all you want, but there is something powerful about seeing the students wave their hands up in glee, hoping to be chosen next to get into the school’s version of nirvana. With grownups this negligent, who wouldn’t want a fast-track ticket to paradise?
Most of all, the series is entertaining as all hell. It twists and turns borrowing elements from psychosexual thrillers, 80s and 90s horror, and teen soap operas. It’s deftly directed and stylish in the most unapologetic, exhilarating way with a synth score that would make even the most cherished 80s horror movie jealous. The show moves, things are happening on it, which is something that can’t be said for much of the prestige drama on television these days. While still touching on some very dark subject matter, the series still wants you to have fun with it all. A tribute to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBNpx9WFOXY ) is reminiscent of a perfectly executed pop moment a la Ryan Murphy. Heather Dukes’ parody of a Fox News segment is dripping with so much acidic sardonicism you can’t help but laugh out loud (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN1__dgf8Ew&t=44s). The US version of the series is available via the Paramount Network app or for purchase on Vudu, but a version of the finale in which Westerburg High ends in destruction despite multiple warnings from the students may or may not be floating around online somewhere. Heathers 2018 cares deeply about the world and the people inhabiting it, it just takes on a ruthlessly nihilistic lens in order to show it. Mission accomplished, Heathers.