Author’s note on spoilers: It’s hard to keep this spoiler free, but I have tried to keep it fairly light on spoilers. I promise not to ruin it for you, in case you haven’t yet seen the show and just want to know if it is worth checking out (spoiler: it is).
October 25th was a Thursday, and I was sitting at home, browsing through Facebook, when I ran across a friend’s post saying that she was watching this Heathers TV show reboot, but not sure how to feel about it yet. My gut reaction was “Is nothing sacred?” I vaguely recalled reading somewhere about plans to make a TV show out of Heathers, but I didn’t know much about it. However, having just experienced last year’s epic reboot of Twin Peaks (which went from TV to movie to TV again) and this year’s magnificent Karate Kid / Cobra Kai reboot (coming from a movie franchise to TV), I was perhaps a little more willing to give this one a try.
I was in college when the original Heathers came out, so it was on high rotation in the VCR queue. At the time, I could no doubt have quoted the entire movie to you, front to back, and remnants of its many, many quotable lines continue to rattle around in my brain to this day. I grew up in a small town in Ohio probably not too different, in size at least, from the fictional Sherwood, so it touched base with me there a little bit too.
So, needless to say, I was prepared to despise this. I declared that I would “hate watch” the first episode and see what I thought. And then, something unexpected happened.
I didn’t hate it.
I did glance at the Wikipedia article on the show before I jumped in to watch, so I had a teensy bit of an idea what they were up to and some of the troubled past this reboot has gone through. I won’t bore you with all the gritty details, but suffice to say that the show has been a bit of a hot potato, given its subject matter. It changed networks a few times, even after the final version of the project was finally greenlit. It was set to be aired in March on Paramount’s eponymous network, and they even went ahead and released the first episode 2 weeks early in February to generate some early buzz.
Then a school shooting happened and the network delayed the release. When the new release date in June rolled around, another school shooting delayed it again. Paramount tried to dump it off on other networks with no luck, and decided to shelve the series indefinitely. It looked like the end for Heathers, until out of the blue, it was announced on October 4 that they would release an edited version (now 9 episodes and minus some school shooter references) over the course of five nights at the end of the month. And even then, yet another mass shooting happened during that time frame and the panicked network pulled episodes 7 and 8 from televised broadcast (they were still available on Paramount’s website and app). As one reviewer at ScreenRant  put it:
“The morbid truth of the matter is that if the Paramount Network had to shelve or postpone every episode of Heathers whenever there was a mass shooting, the season would never fully air.”
Welcome to ‘Murica. Sigh.
Incidentally, the full series, sans edits, was broadcast over the summer in various international markets, and thus is “available” for viewing if you are internet savvy. We will be talking about that full, unedited, original version here.
What Heathers Gets Right
Let’s start here, because we can talk about this without getting too far into spoiler territory. The music in this show is really well done. The score is kind of a throwback, synth-pop fare that reminded me of the score on Stranger Things. It really plays well with the scenes, enhancing things without overshadowing what’s on screen.
The soundtrack is a blend of hits from the past and hip-hop hits from today. All of the new songs are indelibly tied to the show in my mind now. I have to admit I take a certain malicious glee in having Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” forever associated in my mind with the image of Heather McNamara skating around the rink, leaving a trail of blood behind her. Sadly, Beyoncé’s “Halo”, the song to which Heather Chandler makes her triumphant return, is not included on the album, along with several other great songs featured in the series.
“Teen Age Suicide – Don’t Do it” was a radio hit in the ‘80s version of Heathers, which was a perfect match for the decade (though was there a music video on MTV, one wonders?). Now in the ‘10s, it’s a high school musical of the same title, starring Heather Chandler as a lemming resisting the urge to follow the crowd and leap off a cliff to her doom. This is a brilliant choice to modernize this particular story element (in light of the success of Glee and High School Musical). Sadly though, her one featured song is also not on the soundtrack.
Part of the fun in this for us old school Heathers fans is to spot the nods to the original scattered throughout the series, and there are many in Heathers. However, it’s not, by any means, an exercise in rampant nostalgia. The quotes and references are almost universally altered and twisted around. Virtually every one of the lines of quotable dialogue are used, but in completely different context and usually by different characters.
For example, Veronica gets the infamous “chainsaw” line in the pilot, but it’s so quick and subtle that if you blinked, you probably missed it. Whereas the line “I love my dead gay son” is still featured prominently in a funeral scene, but changed up to “I love my dead straight daughter”. For his role, football player Kurt actually is gay this time around, and buys his own copy of “Stud Puppy” magazine. The catchphrase “how very” that was littered throughout the movie has now become “how just”, equally prolific. Perhaps this is reflective of the difference between the decade of excess and the decade of social justice.
Overall, I think this was a great decision. The result is that Heathers is not exactly a remake, and it’s not exactly a reboot. The first and last episodes probably follow the original Heathers formula most closely, but even then there are twists and turns that change it up from the original. The effect is to make the movie mandatory watching before watching the series, even for newbies.
The intent for this new Heathers is that it will become an anthology series, with each season taking place in a different setting. A season 2, set in 1700’s France (think Marie Antoinette), has already been written  and was hinted at in the final scene of season 1. It would be a shame if it never came to being.
There can be little doubt that there is a political message or two buried in this new version of Heathers. What that message is though has been a topic of heated commentary. The Daily Beast called the show a “Trumpian, LGBT-bashing nightmare”  and the Advocate spring-boarded off that review to claim that the show was being “embraced by the Alt-Right” . Now, granted, these opinions were based solely off the pilot episode back when it aired in February, so it is perhaps a little bit forgivable that someone could come to such a ludicrous conclusion.
There’s not a single character in this cast that a Trump fan could relate to. The cool kids are gay, the nerds are gay, the football players are gay, and even one of the teachers is gay. The adults are all clueless idiots, and the straight, white protagonists are both psychopaths. People whine about the lack of diversity on most television shows, but look at this cast. This is not a CW teen drama with incredibly beautiful people cast in every role.
The one, solid Trumpian character on the show is J.D.’s dad, the “Fracking King of Ohio” who collects Nazi memorabilia because “it reminds him of a simpler time.” Ultimately, we could consider him the true bad guy of the show, because he drove J.D.’s mother to suicide and thus created the monster that J.D. would turn out to be. But the show spends zero time on him. He is not the primary target of the show’s political statement.
To be sure though, this show was written in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and is informed by that event. When the Left had its ass handed to it, a lot of political pundits were scrambling to figure out how things could have gone so seemingly awry. A common theme of those analyses was that “identity politics” had gotten out of control and the Democrats put all of their eggs in that basket, ignoring more important economic issues. This is well encompassed in this quote from a Vox article :
“Should the emphasis be on finally addressing America’s long history of systemic racism, going from slavery to the criminal justice system? Or is the more pressing issue the massively corrupt, unequal economic and financial system that benefits the top 1 percent far more than the rest of the nation, regardless of race?”
There can be little doubt that identity politics is one of the issues the show is illuminating with the flashlight of satire, but the progressive Left doesn’t always have enough of a sense of humor to be willing to laugh at themselves. Jason Micallef, the creator of Heathers, has pointed out that his staff of folks who made this, from the actors to the technicians, are “mostly queer” themselves . Understand? They are poking fun *at themselves*.
Veronica’s journey is one of identity. She doesn’t want her identity to be defined by others, but she constantly slips back into those roles again and again throughout the series. The Heathers derive their power from their identity and their ability to wield it as a weapon. Anything that threatens to perturb that identity will “ruin” them. The application of their principles is wildly inconsistent though. Heather Chandler call out Ram as a racist for wearing a Remington Squaws t-shirt, but then she turns right around and forces him to sexually harass the super religious “Jesus Julie”. Her protégé, Lizzy, calls Heather out on this behavior when she steps up to defend Brianna “Trailer” Parker in the bathroom. “I’m just calling out injustice when I see it, like you taught me.” she says.
Because the real battlefront at Westerburg High School is the rich kids versus the poor kids. Class warfare and economic injustice are completely ignored under the tyranny of the Heathers’ reign. It’s perfectly acceptable to belittle and suppress the “poor kids” in the school. It’s practically expected, by both sides, and even the teachers engage in it.
The tyranny of the Heathers even extends to themselves. They are best friends and worst enemies, because they spend so much time and energy infighting amongst themselves, jockeying for power. Just like we see in identity politics. The progressive Left eats their own all the time and has a hard time herding the cats, while the conservative Right will fall in line behind any leader, even one they personally despise.
Along with the satire and perhaps critique of identity politics, the show goes after several other current political issues. Arming teachers as a response to school shootings. Blaming the victim in cases of assault. The tension between empowering girls and protecting them. Mostly these scenes play out in interactions between the adults and the kids, as the adults are jaw-droppingly idiotic and the powerless kids are left dumbfounded in their wake. The adults are the real bad guys of the show, if the kids could just stop their infighting long enough to realize it.
Heather #2, Heather Duke, is a genderqueer male, originally born as “Heath”. Which is just brilliant. And to top it off, she absolutely steals the scene every time she’s on screen. There are a lot of new quotable lines in this Heathers, and the majority of them are voiced by Heather Duke. Like when one of the teachers asks Heather what her preferred pronoun is, and she replies “For old people, my preferred pronoun is ‘don’t talk to me’.”
Mid-way through the season, Heather is recruited to revive the school’s daily news broadcast as a form of punishment. The result is “Hellscape with Heather Duke”, low on journalism perhaps, but high on entertainment. Paramount filmed extra segments of “Hellscape” to serve as episode recaps, posting them to YouTube in conjunction with the episode releases . As such though, there are only 9 of them, but each one is a gem.
What Heathers Gets Wrong
The Episode Titles
Yeah, maybe this is a minor nitpick, but my first real groan at this whole exercise was when I saw the list of episode titles, all of which are taken from lines in the original Heathers. As you work through the series, you quickly come to realize that those titles have virtually nothing to do with their respective episodes, and I’m pretty sure in most cases said quote is not even in the episode. This was an unnecessary move, and probably has turned more than a few potential viewers away before they even gave it a chance.
The Early Release of the Pilot
One of the reasons Heathers is taking such a beating on the ratings aggregator sites is that so many of the reviews are based on that early release of the pilot back in February. The pilot is easily the most formulaic episode to the original Heathers, so for people going in with a strong predilection to compare this unfavorably to the original, there were a lot of opportunities to do so. Without the rest of the series to back it up, it was easy to misinterpret some of the premise building work being done in the pilot as a predictor of what was to come in the remaining 9 episodes. Bad move on the network’s part. I’d also add that the use of “Que Sera Sera” in the very first scene felt forced, and like the episode titles, made it seem like they were trying just a bit too hard.
The Mid-Season Slump
The series presents itself more or less in three acts. Episodes 1-4 set up the premise and seem to be settling in to a “death-of-the-week” groove, episodes 5-7 I’ll call the courtship of Veronica and J.D., and then episodes 8-10 work their way towards the prom and the conclusion of the story. It’s in those middle episodes where the story runs off the rails a bit.
First of all, we haven’t done this yet, but let’s establish that this world is decided *not* reality. One of the sillier critiques leveled at Heathers has been that it presents an unrealistic scenario where the marginalized students rule the school and the bullies are the ones cowering in fear. The kids wouldn’t act this way… the adults wouldn’t act that way… yada, yada, yada. These critics are sadly way beyond not getting it. There is no Kurt’s younger sister at his funeral to break the surreality of it all this time.
Episode 5 reveals that Veronica is also a psychopath, when she turns the tables and goes after J.D. in a fit of jealousy. This plot line really starts in episode 2 when she gets her own “8 Years Earlier” flashback, to parallel J.D.’s in the pilot, clearly telegraphing that she will be revealed as the never-caught “Croquet Killer”. She manages to blindside J.D. with her attack, blowing up his car and getting him confined to a psychiatric hospital against his will on a 3-day “mental hold”. I won’t get into the details, but it’s all a bit goofy. In the end, they make up and kill someone together. Ah, true love prevails.
I don’t know, the more I rewatch this part of the series, the more it wears on me. My initial impression though was that this could have been cut out and the season could have easily been only 8 or 9 episodes long. Maybe so, maybe not. Of course, it did end up being chopped up into 9 episodes for the US broadcast, but cutting out elements that are much more critical.
The First-Person Shooter Episode
Episode 5 is also particularly derailing because it is shot almost entirely from a first person perspective behind J.D.’s eyes. The idea, undoubtedly, was to mimic a first-person-shooter game. A point they practically beat us over the head with, as the episode begins with a scene from just such a game that J.D. is playing on his phone. Yeah, OK, we get it.
The middle episodes were mostly each helmed by a different, one-off director, with episode 5 being directed by Adam Silver. Looking over his IMDB profile, he appears to be more of a cinematographer with only a smattering of directing experience, but two of his credits were “interactive” straight-to-video movies (Jumpmaster and Pathfinder) made “in collaboration with the Airborne School at Fort Benning” . Perhaps that was the inspiration for this rather odd choice.
The ending feels a little bit contrived. It’s kind of obvious that they wanted to put in this twist, where somehow Veronica would be the one wanting to pull the trigger on the bombs and J.D. would be the one trying to stop her, and that’s all well and good I suppose. It perhaps explains why we had to have that interlude in the middle episodes to show us that Veronica is also a psychopath.
Of course, that’s not the real ending. Nowhere near it. There were several “endings” to the show, and, at least on initial viewing, they seemed to just keep dragging things out. They blow up the school – break to commercial. The survivors have a “what have we learned” moment (answer: nothing) – break to commercial. Then, at last, the real ending.
That final ending was annoying, and weird, and kind of disconnected from everything else. I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it, and I felt the show would have been so much better without it. That was my initial impression, but like other things with this Heathers, I’m finding that when I go back and rewatch it, I kind of like it even. I know I’ve spoiled more than a few things if you’ve read this far without having watched the show, but I don’t want to spoil this one for you. Watch and see for yourself. I do feel the music selection was particularly inspired, I’ll say that much. Maybe we’ll talk about the rest in another article someday.
The original Heathers was very much a product of its age, satirizing the feel-good teen movies of the John Hughes era. It was a time when we could still look at the flag at half-mast and wonder who died, not how many. Arguably, that Heathers may have even had a hand in bringing about this modern era of school shootings and other violence. Of course, even in The Breakfast Club, remember that Brian was in detention that day for bringing a gun to school. The cultural undertone of violence has always been there in America.
Heathers the TV series takes that satire and widens the aperture to take on all manner of cultural and political absurdities. Heathers is also another instance of nostalgia done right. A reimagining of the original in a way that does not take anything away from the original, but rather adds another chapter to its legacy. I hope you’ll give it a chance like I did, and I hope Paramount finds the courage to stand behind the show and let them make another season of the anthology.
Notes / References:
- “A Heathers Reboot In 2018 Was Always A Terrible Idea” (ScreenRant, Oct 30, 2018): https://screenrant.com/heathers-tv-show-bad/
- “Adam Silver (III)” (IMDB): https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1467511/
- “The New ‘Heathers’ Is a Trumpian, LGBT-Bashing Nightmare” (The Daily Beast, Feb 23, 2018): https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-new-heathers-is-a-trumpian-lgbt-bashing-nightmare
- “Heathers Reboot Is Embraced — by the Alt-Right” (The Advocate, Feb 27, 2018): https://www.advocate.com/television/2018/2/27/heathers-reboot-embraced-alt-right
- “Soundtrack Album for Paramount Network’s ‘Heathers’ TV Series to Be Released” (Film Music Reporter, October 4, 2018): http://filmmusicreporter.com/2018/10/04/soundtrack-album-for-paramount-networks-heathers-tv-series-to-be-released/
- “‘Heathers’ TV Series Score Album Announced” (Film Music Reporter, October 15, 2018): http://filmmusicreporter.com/2018/10/15/heathers-tv-series-score-album-announced/
- “Heathers: Reboot Series Cancelled at Paramount Network; Season Two Writing Nearly Finished” (TV Series Finale, June 1, 2018): https://tvseriesfinale.com/tv-show/heathers-reboot-series-cancelled-at-paramount-network-season-two/
- “The battle over identity politics, explained” (Vox, Aug 17, 2017): https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/12/2/13718770/identity-politics
- “Heathers (TV series)” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heathers_(TV_series)
- “Hellscape with Heather Duke #1 (Heathers Episode 1 Recap) | Paramount Network” (Paramount Network, YouTube): https://youtu.be/Hygpuq1FzQc