Spoilers ahead for the American TV remake of Heathers.
It should come as no surprise that the marathon release of Paramount Television’s Heathers fell apart. The embattled TV remake of the 1988 film comedy has been delayed repeatedly over the past year, as a wave of school shootings and terrible advance reviews made the show’s tongue-in-cheek look at high school violence seem like a public relations disaster. Paramount attempted to sell off the series, then heavily recut it, merging its 10 hourlong episodes into five two-hour segments, and removing large segments of the finale. But the plan for a weeklong Halloween marathon release of the recut edition, starting on October 25th, seemed to be coming together.
Then on October 27th, an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. And on Monday the 29th, Paramount pulled two of the merged Heathers episodes from the middle of its release schedule, concerned that they would look inappropriate in the wake of still more American gun violence. It was the latest setback in a long, bumpy road for the series, but Heathers’ struggles weren’t just a collision of unfortunate current events with misguided nostalgia for edgy 1980s comedy. From the beginning, the show was an impressive collection of bad decisions and a misreading of the society that produced it.
As glib as it sounds, the world in which the original Winona Ryder and Christian Slater movie was released was genuinely different, and not just because there were far fewer mass shootings in the United States per year compared with the horrific current rate. Awareness and treatment of mental illness was far lower in 1988, and so was the bar for transgressive art on the subject. In the current #NeverAgain era, a comedy focusing on two high school kids whose response to bullies includes murder and a plan to blow up a school feels tasteless and insensitive, even before the casual homophobia and jokes around teen suicide.
The Heathers series was announced in March 2016, when it received a pilot order from TV Land, with plans to make it a half-hour comedy. In January 2017, the network ordered a full season as an hourlong dramedy, but two months after that, the series moved to sibling network Paramount Network without explanation. (It could simply be that Paramount, the reworked Spike Network, needed content. It’s also as likely that TV Land execs realized they didn’t want Heathers in their lineup.)
In January 2018, an initial trailer provoked vocal backlash. (More on that in a second.) More significantly, the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February prompted Paramount to postpone the series from its original March 2018 debut. Three months later, with Parkland still in the news, thanks to vocal student activists, Paramount dropped the show entirely for what were, by then, well-publicized concerns about the show’s lack of sensitivity.
Attempts to sell the completed series to another network were unsuccessful, although it did sell internationally. In early October, Paramount began promoting its re-edited version of the series, which removed an entire episode’s worth of material. And then the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh prompted Paramount to skip broadcasting two of the edited episodes — essentially cutting four of the original, unedited episodes, skipping straight from episode four to the heavily edited final episode. (More on that in a second, too.) All nine episodes, as broadcast in the US, are available to stream at the Paramount Network site — at least as of this writing.
Beyond the fact that a revenge comedy set in an American high school would obviously play differently in a post-Columbine world — the original Heathers was released 11 years before Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 people in the most infamous American school shooting prior to Parkland — the television series makes a variety of changes to the movie, almost all of which are troubling. What to make, for example, of the series’s original ending, in which the high school where the show is set is blown up, resulting in an afterlife sequence where the students killed in the explosion are happier than they were when they were alive? (Well, almost all — even in death, the main character, Veronica, can’t find peace or belonging, in spite of her egotistical best intentions.)
Only international audiences got to see that happen, though. For the US broadcast, the climactic scenes, and much of the rest of the final episode, was abandoned entirely, with the bombing left as a possible future. As far as American viewers know, the series ends with Veronica on her way to prom where a bomb may or may not go off, depending on whether her boyfriend and part-time psychopath J.D. can follow through on his attempt to redeem himself in the name of true love.
The most dramatic change the show made, however, is the decision to radically alter the lineup of the Heathers themselves. In the original movie, they’re a trio of shallow mean girls who represent everything about the dominant social elite: they’re white, straight, traditionally beautiful, heterosexual, elitist, exclusive, judgmental, and bullying. They dominate and terrorize everyone unlike them just because they can. The television reboot turns that dynamic around, with a new trio of Heathers: a snarky heavyset girl, a biracial girl, and a genderqueer student. Together, these previously marginalized types bully Veronica and J.D. — who, not coincidentally, are white, straight, traditionally beautiful, and heterosexual. Who could blame them for fighting back? They’re just standing their ground, right?
The obvious, creepy MAGA-ization of the concept significantly alters the story being told, and it was the primary reason the trailer for the show provoked such a dramatic response when it debuted. Critics protested that a story about outsiders finding their voice had been revised to suggest outsiders and marginalized kids have become a domineering force that needs to be stopped at any cost. Reviews for the finished season were no kinder, calling the show “a hateful, bigoted exercise in regression hiding behind the guise of dark comedy,” and complaining that it “managed to take the more problematic aspects of the concept and somehow make them ickier.”
A significant portion of the show’s tone-deafness may lie with the fact that showrunner Jason Micallef seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the original Heathers. Talking to Entertainment Weekly about criticism of the trailer in January, he said, “In the original film, the Heathers were the ones I always loved, and it’s the same with the series. The Heathers are the aspirational characters… The villain is J.D. — and that’s the same in the movie and same in our show.”
Not to defend J.D. — a psychopathic parody of a rebel-kid cliché, who is less charming in the television version — but the point of the original Heathers was that Veronica was surrounded by “villains,” and that the Heathers and J.D. were merely different flavors of narcissistic toxicity that failed to see anything outside of their own desires. The re-edited U.S. finale of the show makes that point somewhat accidentally when Veronica likens the Heathers to J.D. as self-consciously “cool kids” she’d rather not talk to.
Unfortunately, the now-missing climax backtracked this reading substantially. In the afterlife, two of the Heathers meet and happily ask each other, “Why were we so mean to each other down there?” “Maybe it’s because being mean was easier… than being brave,” comes the syrup-laden response. The message was clear. Bullies! They’re just socially awkward! They don’t mean to destroy lives; they were really just scared!
Heathers as a concept feels dissonant with the world we live in now — a world where the connection between bullying and teen suicide is much clearer, and dismissing bullying with a shrug and a gag seems disingenuous. But if anything, the TV version feels like it’s too much in tune with the present objectification and othering of anyone who isn’t white and straight. The attempts to normalize and explain away bullying are also of the moment, and so are the insincere attempts to pretend to care, which fall by the side when shock and cruelty are far easier to achieve. Looking at the world through the specific lens of 2018, the Heathers may, in fact, seem aspirational to a certain audience: they’re powerful and in control, and they’re confident they aren’t really bullies at heart, no matter how bullying their words or actions may be.
But the audience who might believe that tack isn’t the Heathers audience. Or, at least, not the original Heathers audience. For all its flippant attitude, deadly violence, and “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” outrageousness of the movie, it’s still about the need for kindness and acceptance and finding a moderate, human path between extreme, aggressive points of view. (Think of how the movie ends, with Veronica asking the first victim of the Heathers’ bullying to hang out.) If Micallef and his crew had paid attention to that lesson, then things might have gone very differently for their TV edition of Heathers. Flipping the original version’s script without understanding any of its messages was always going to be a problem. Bringing it into such a radically changed world was even worse. The show was doomed from the start.