America, with its chronic inability to address the massacre of schoolchildren, has proved inhospitable to “Heathers,” a miniseries created by Jason Micallef, which will première on the semi-obscure Paramount Network on Thursday. The show is based on the movie from 1989, a black farce about a murder spree committed by a disaffected rich white girl and her sociopathic boyfriend, culminating in his attempt to bomb a pep rally. The show was ordered by Viacom, initially, as the first installment of an anthology series for TV Land that was expected to reiterate the formula—teen angst with a body count—in various settings over its run. The new “Heathers” commits to what the critic Pauline Kael called the “sadistic gaudiness” of the original; it was supposed to climax with a prom-night slaughter, and a dénouement in the afterlife. The episodes were scheduled to air in March, but, after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, the series was rescheduled for July. In the intervening months, mass shootings continued, and Viacom again postponed the show. The company shopped it around to streaming services, but to no avail. The cruelty of the satire—its low opinion of humankind, its willingness to scratch sensitive topics raw—was too much.
It was dumped on the Internet on Monday, and, beginning Thursday, will play on cable over five consecutive nights. The timing makes it feel like a horror-show Halloween special—and it is thrilling, with wit as gentle as a chainsaw. The network has toned down the finale by cutting the prom-bombing climax, and replacing it with nothing much. The show fizzles in the home stretch, but it is easy to imagine a showrunner’s cut of “Heathers” that fills it out as a pop-surrealist masterpiece.
In the movie, three trim white girls, all named Heather, along with the protagonist, Veronica Sawyer, formed the top clique at Westerburg High School. Winona Ryder played the original Veronica with a dry drawl, and it is a strange pleasure to hear the new actor, Grace Victoria Cox, acknowledge her predecessor in her every line reading. In other ways, the show has been updated for the present day. Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), the ringleader and kingpin, is now a plus-size social-media star—the most influential teen in Sherwood, Ohio. Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) identifies as a biracial lesbian. Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) was assigned the name Heath before they came out as genderqueer. The gang’s first act of cafeteria-scene gangsterism finds Heather Chandler orchestrating the humiliation of a linebacker named Ram Sweeney for wearing the offensive T-shirt of the Remington University Squaws football team. Later, the new kid in school—J. D. Dean, played by James Scully, who inherits a role that was originated by Christian Slater—skulks over to Veronica’s locker to express his disgust at the Heathers’ abuse of power. Veronica concedes that their behavior constitutes “that same great high-school bitch taste you’ve come to hate, but now in a new, environmentally friendly packaging.”
One scene, at a faculty meeting, treats the question of Heather Duke’s preferred pronouns as fodder for a “Who’s on First?”-type bit. It is pretty decent, but neither this scene nor the satirical rendering of marginalized people as high-school tyrants is going to fly on Twitter. Still, the show is wonderful precisely because it treats violence in America with a sneer of nihilism. Westerburg High, for instance, is named for a military hero who is depicted in a schoolyard statue lifting the severed head of an Indian; a cherished make-out spot exists at the local landmark where, according to legend, General Westerburg first defiled his twelve-year-old Native American bride. Elsewhere, when a student is the target of sexual assault, she promptly reports the crime and reads a precise account of the allegations to a police officer, who immediately disbelieves her. Her parents carry her screaming from the interview room, in a madcap caricature of victim-blaming. Here is a warning that the whole show is a trigger.
The series has taken the spiky language of the film—its catty insults and slang—and remixed it for the digital age. Its influences range from Ryan Murphy’s “Glee” (in musical sequences) to Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (in its deadpan diagnosis of American psychopathy) to Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake” (in an episode shot almost entirely from the perspective of J. D.). Its sinister synthetic score holds together material that wheels from catfighting teen soap to sincere suspense thriller to pitiless social critique to revenge drama; it adds up to a combination of a Buñuelian telenovela and Gen X fan fiction. The show sheds new light on the original film while also refracting its themes and favorite phrases to offer a fresh portrait of current concerns.
In the pilot, Veronica and J. D. kill Heather Chandler, in revenge for her viciousness, and disguise the murder as a suicide. The demise of the most popular girl in school introduces the dynamics of a death cult to the student body. Disappointed to see Chandler hailed as a martyr, J. D. delivers a cynical riff about the emptiness of life:
People are so predictable. It’s like the celebrity of the week dies
and people are, like, “Oh, let me post about how truly devastated I am
about the tragic loss of Robin Williams. You know, ‘Flubber’ was a very
formative film for me.” Or, up next on the American carrousel of
tragedy, another poor black kid gets shot: “Let me insert myself into
this incredibly complex racial issue not because I actually give a
shit but just so I can help define who I am.”
The show is painfully sharp in its portrayal of the way grief is performed on social media and I.R.L. It is similarly brutal in its lampooning of national deformities. During an active-shooter drill, a stoner girl in an army jacket speaks up: “Do you think, in a society that, like, values fame above all else, that, like, treating these students like misunderstood masterminds provides a blueprint for lost kids to feel, like, important?” This is our country, and “Heathers” sizes it up as a hellscape.