Nearly any introduction to the 1988 cult-classic film “Heathers” includes the phrase, “It couldn’t be made today.” A distinct remnant of pre-Columbine America, the anti-John Hughes flick stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as they “accidentally” murder off the popular kids of their Sherwood, Ohio high school.
And yet, here we are with Paramount Network’s TV-adapted “Heathers.” In potentially the coldest social critique of modern high school politics, the show inanely made the Heathers — the original Mean Girls and the queen bees of Westerburg High, who all share the name Heather — socially marginalized individuals.
Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) is genderqueer, Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) is a Black lesbian — who is revealed to be straight, because we can’t have anything — and Heather Chandler (Melanie Field) is plus-sized. The anti-heroic protagonists, J.D. (James Scully) and Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox), are white, straight, cisgender and thin.
The entire pilot episode reads like the meme “This is the future that liberals want.” The Heathers “bully” the thin, white, problematic straights. Ram (Cayden Boyd), a jock who attempts sexual assault in the original film, here wears a T-shirt with a racist mascot. He’s threatened by Heather Chandler with a public shaming to Chandler’s thousands of Twitter followers that will ruin his chance at a college scholarship. Veronica, meanwhile, struggles to come up with an angle for her college essay because she isn’t queer or a woman of color — she’s “only” half-Jewish.
The episode inexplicably warns against fighting for the recognition of ostracized and oppressed people. It’s an idiotic parable, a tired reiteration of the warning that the oppressed will become the oppressor if their rights are recognized.
MTV attempted a similar enterprise in “Faking It” — a problematic show that was still circulated in queer online circles for its LGBTQ+ representation — in which a high school is ruled by LGBTQ+ persons and people of color, set in a world where white blonde girls are bottom feeders on the social ladder. “Faking It” was canceled, and yet the TV version of “Heathers” chose to present an even stronger iteration of this asinine fear.
Attempting to combine a lukewarm critique of social media with a half-assed, neon, “Riverdale”-like aesthetic, the show purports itself as brave for not shying away from the hot-button issues of our time. Beyond its impressive, far-too-expensive-looking cinematography, the show is skin-crawlingly bad — sporting a solid reproduction of the original film’s omniscient score and nothing else.
Its humor largely relies on “updates” to iconic lines from the 1988 classic — the most egregious being the translation of “gotta motor” to “gotta Tesla” — and it asserts itself as a legitimate adaptation through an unnecessary cameo by Shannen Doherty, the original actress of Heather Duke. Its acting is cringe-inducing, with lead actress Cox attempting a Winona Ryder impression so blatant, it harkens back to original reviews of the ‘80s classic that panned Slater’s obvious Jack Nicholson impression.
In the same week where “Heathers” released its pilot for free on iTunes, the teenage survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting continued to make a difference through social media. They’ve organized walkouts and a march on Washington, D.C. that’s already raised millions of dollars. They coordinated a CNN town hall and used their Twitters to refute NRA advocates and conspiracy theorists alike.
If this “Heathers” adaptation has one centralized message, it’s that society is giving teenage “social justice warriors” too much power on the internet. In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, it’s a poorly timed message, one that’s already insensitive in a post-Columbine society. And after two decades of school shootings and lives lost too soon, the show is completely irrelevant and even reckless in today’s world.
And that’s the thing — the original “Heathers” provided a biting social commentary, though it was undeniably insensitive and problematic in its own right. It subverted the John Hughes flicks of its day, portraying quite literally how high school feels like a matter of life and death.
While any adaptation is largely unnecessary, other adaptations of the film have been successful. “Heathers: The Musical” captures the film’s spirit, albeit with some added evangelizing, and UC Berkeley’s own BareStage Productions further subverted the musical’s subject matter by making the central, murderous couple queer in its staging.
Hell, even last year’s Ohio-set “Tragedy Girls” provided a better warning of social media through its serial killer teen best friends, a more deserving “modern Heathers” if the title must be given. There are ways to update “Heathers” in spite of the fact that its appeal is rooted in its 1980s aesthetic of innocence.
Instead, Paramount Network chose to fuck the original “Heathers” gently with a chainsaw. Here’s to hoping that the series, like its villains, will receive an early demise.
“Heathers” premieres March 7 on the Paramount Network.
Caroline Smith is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].