Any fan of the original 1989 film Heathers knew that the spin-off television series would be dark. Heathers itself is essentially Mean Girls with a body count — if Cady (Lindsay Lohan) really did push Regina (Rachel McAdams) in front of that bus and to her death. What I didn't expect from Paramount Network's new venture was for it to be so bleak — or to portray this generation of teenagers as morally vacant creatures.
The original Heathers was written by Daniel Waters during a time in which financial figures like Donald Trump and the fictional Wall Street character Gordon Gekko were revered. Status and wealth were important. John Hughes films like Pretty In Pink emphasized class difference, and showed how cutthroat wealthy people could be to those on the outside.
It's natural, then, that Waters would comment on such a society with Heathers: Veronica (Winona Ryder), is a "good" person who gets sucked into the vapid, cruel crowd that is the Heathers, if mostly for survival. It's only after she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), a disturbed young man who vows to destroy the high school caste system by any means necessary, does Veronica wake up and smell the pâté.
The message? Being a teenager sucks, but the best way to get through it is to live compassionately, not cruelly. For all the film's darkness, which includes Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) being poisoned to death by liquid drain cleaner, it ends rather sweetly: with Veronica reaching out to bullied Martha (Carrie Lynn) for a popcorn and movie hang.
The musical version of Heathers, which ran off-Broadway in 2014, drives this point home rather succinctly in the song "Seventeen (Reprise)" with lyrics that include: "We can be seventeen/Still time to make things right/One day we'll change the world/But let's kick back tonight."
The TV show takes place in 2018, and despite hitting many of the major story beats from the film within the pilot episode, it's a radically different beast. Heather Chandler (Melanie Fields, who is so excellent in this show it's baffling that this is her first major role) is a plus-size, body-positive young woman with a perfectly-curated Instagram account and makeup that even YouTube beauty vloggers would envy. She's also still the worst, albeit in a different way: While 1989 Heather C. criticized girls because of their weight, new Heather C. wouldn't dare — that would be so not body-positive! What would she do? For starters, she would post a picture of a footballer wearing a shirt depicting a symbol of a Native American mascot in order for said footballer to be publicly shamed. She would also then tell that footballer to ask an ultra-Christian conservative if she would "do anal" with him as penance.
The fact that a proudly left-leaning, plus-size woman tries to humiliate a conservative Christian character named "Jesus Julie" sounds like something Tomi Lahren would reference in one of her Final Thoughts videos... which, err, is problematic, no?
The new Heathers are supposed to be cool because they are "different." They are awful because they are radically politically correct and use that political correctness as a way to exact power over meeker students. They are "social justice warriors" in the harshest use of the term.
It's worth mentioning that all of the Heathers — not just the HBIC — are a part of one or more marginalized communities. Heather Duke is genderqueer (nonbinary) and gay. Heather McNamara is biracial and a lesbian, or at least pretending to be one. Of the change, Brendan Scannell, who portrays Heather Duke, told Entertainment Weekly: "We've got a Black Heather, a plus-sized Heather, a queer Heather. These communities still face discrimination. But our show is turning that on its head and using the power of the internet and the power of like, pure self-confidence to trash everybody around them." Still, that doesn't exactly excuse the problematic language used in the series (a guidance counselor asks if Veronica is a hermaphrodite, as it would make a better college essay; the principal refers to Heather Duke as he/she; Heather McNamara's possible bisexuality is completely erased with the line, "our Black lesbian friend is only Black!"). The fact that LGBTQ+ youths still attempt death by suicide at an alarmingly high rate suggests that maybe they're not actually sitting pretty at the top of the high school social hierarchy.
Then again, Heathers doesn't exactly deal with suicide in a tasteful matter, either. Without spoiling too much, critics of 13 Reasons Why's disturbingly realistic suicide depiction will likely be particularly disturbed by Heathers' irreverent portrayal of a similar scene.
Yet the fact that Heathers so bizarrely declares that the marginalized are the new mean girls isn't the only issue here. Heathers makes it seem like the biggest problem teenagers face on the daily is climbing the social ladder and curating their Instagram accounts, making them as shallow and self-absorbed as ever. The truth couldn't be more different. We're living in a time when teenagers (at least some teenagers) are fighting like hell to make an impact. After a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida claimed the lives of 17 people, survivors, students, and other young people took a stand. They demanded better gun control at a CNN town hall, where they confronted NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Florida senator Marco Rubio, who has accepted donation money from the organization.
Maybe the Heathers would do this, too — but the series would make it clear that they were doing it for the accolades and attention.
It's a bleak and cynical view of the young generation, and one that, frankly, they don't deserve. Consider some of the faces of Young Hollywood: stars Rowan Blanchard, 16, Yara Shahidi, 18, and Amandla Stenberg, 19, are activists as well as actors, who have spoken frankly and eloquently about issues of gender, race, and class. Their outspokenness has turned some potential fans off — we hear time and time again from the right (and the President) that celebrities should be seen and not heard. Yet these young people speak out because there is injustice in this world, and it's much bigger than an offensive logo on a shirt.
It's certainly bigger than a high school popularity contest.
As the show reveals itself further in future episodes, perhaps it will convey a deeper moral message, and a fairness to 2018 teenagers its earliest episodes don't allow. I'm holding my breath that the series honors the film that came before it, and gives us a teenager to root for. Despite what Heathers may suggest, the youths are doing amazing things.