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The Heathers Reboot Was the Bold and Beautiful Queer TV Series We Deserved

Though unfairly assessed at the time, the 2018 reboot smartly adapted the film's satire for a new generation.
  • Heathers, 2018 (Photo: Michael Yarish/Paramount); Inset: Heathers, 1989 (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Heathers, 2018 (Photo: Michael Yarish/Paramount); Inset: Heathers, 1989 (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Every year, programmers fall over themselves trying to create the perfect queer show, one that is as inoffensive and wide-reaching as possible, and as appealing to the straights as it is the community it’s intended to depict. These shows have their edges sanded off for safety, by producers or executives too scared to offend viewers with something that might be considered a cancelable offense. Hell, the idea that queer people can be truly awful has been limited to a precious few comedies, none of which goes deeper than just making the queer characters as annoying as they are relatable.

    But five years ago, there was a series that was bold enough to portray queer people as awful as they can be, serving as the antithesis to the wholesome narratives that have come to dominate the landscape: Heathers. Coming 30 long years after the film it was based on, Jason Micallef’s brilliant play on the original movie’s dark sense of humor was immediately lambasted by uninformed viewers and critics. Though both the film and the series explored the insane politics of high school, the former’s core antagonists — a bundle of straight white women that exemplified the stereotypical Popular Kid of the 1980s — were traded in for a more contemporary, and somewhat ridiculous replacement: three queer kids with elite status, finance, and power in their measly Ohio high school.

    Heather Chandler (Melanie Field) is a plus-size girl with Instagram celebrity on the brain and an obscene amount of control over the school’s populace; Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) is a genderfluid kid whose aspirations of running the school are often foiled by their ‘right-hand man’ status to Heather Chandler; and Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) is the Black lesbian who is actually a straight girl sleeping with her professor, the ditzy one who still manages to throw around some of the most cutting barbs. They all exist in contrast to Veronica (Grace Victoria Cox), seemingly the strait-laced one of the bunch, who hangs around with them as though she fits in, but with sociopathic secrets hidden beneath the innocent facade. Those tendencies are all exacerbated by the presence of JD (James Scully), a guy who positions himself as the antithesis of the narcissistic teens he’s surrounded by while also being an entitled rich white kid whose father has a fracking empire and who dreams of killing everyone around him.

    Despite the first few episodes rather clearly establishing that Veronica and JD were as awful as the Heathers (which the show doubles down on by them as the kind of people who glorify and fetishize mass killing), some viewers latched onto the depiction of the Heathers themselves as villains who needed to be stopped. This was instantly derided as “reactionary,” “Trumpian,” and “written for aging Fox News viewers” by critics who hadn't really engaged with the text itself. If they had, they would have seen that the show, largely crafted by queer individuals (including directors Leslye Headland and Gregg Araki), was more interested in exploring and poking fun at the absurdity and toxicity embedded in American culture than producing the kind of lazy queer villains that many others do.

    Just as Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann’s original film was a product of its era, so is Micallef’s series, largely functioning as a response to the social media-obsessed culture of the time (which we still exhaustingly inhabit). And just as the politics of high school serve as a microcosm of our nation’s politics in real life, so do the ones in Heathers, which rather explicitly indicts almost every single one of its characters as both awful people and products of the completely f*cked culture in which they’ve been raised. This extends from the teens who are the show’s primary focus — the queer Heathers and the cishet duo of Veronica and JD — to the adults that surround them, including their indifferent parents and boneheaded teachers.

    The show rather impressively matches the film’s comic sensibilities with consistently funny episodes that are as pleasantly cruel as they are scathingly satirical. Even when referencing the film’s punchy dialogue — saying “I love my dead straight daughter” as opposed to “I love my dead gay son” upon the death of a character who pretends to be a lesbian in order to fit in — it never feels derivative. It’s also a testament to the performers themselves that they can foreground the emotional and psychological impact of their character’s actions while still maintaining a sense of inaction in their personalities; they’ll never stop being awful people, simply because they firmly believe it’ll get them ahead, but, boy, does it mess with their sense of self on the daily.

    And while many couldn’t quite grasp the politics of who exactly the show was taking shots at, it’s clear that Heathers took a page from Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s brand of “everyone is awful, and, thus, hilarious” rather than South Park’s edgelord humor disguised as "equal opportunity offending.” The reboot criticizes the casual racism, homophobia, and sexism that people engage with rather than actually perpetuating it, to hilariously satisfying effect when characters get what’s coming to them. High schoolers threaten each other with cancellation at every turn, ready to expose any given student for their perceived crimes.

    They start inane campaigns for self-promotion and clout that are designed to “help” but are immensely harmful and designed for monetary gain, like Heather’s “I AM SUICIDE” campaign that features each Heather pretending to kill themselves with the text sprawled out (and, unsurprisingly, eventually prompts a suicide attempt). Practically every action by the student body and those meant to corral them (the teachers have conferences every episode where they showcase how out of touch they are) is completely and utterly ridiculous, but the show grounds some of it in reality, most of all in the way JD and Veronica’s arc plays out.

    For all the concerns that critics had about the series painting the Heathers as the villains, they missed the most scathing commentary the show had to offer on the sociopathy inherent in straight, entitled, rich, white men and women. We see this in the relationship between Veronica and JD, who are not only awful and indifferent people whose musings on society sound like they’re out of a school shooter playbook, but who validate and enable each other like a fangirl on Tumblr fawning over Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer.

    Take, for instance, the fifth and eighth episodes, “Reindeer Games” and “Call Us When the Shuttle Lands,” which are both focused on JD’s relationship with the world around him. By no means does the series think of him as a tragic protagonist, but Micallef and his team use JD as a way to vocally chastise American ineptitude around school shootings. The former episode places the audience directly in JD’s POV; it's shot like an unsettling horror video game cutscene designed to boost this sociopath’s ego and present him as the true villain of the series. Original cast member Shannon Doherty even makes a short appearance as JD’s dead mother who, in a fantasy, encourages him to take as many lives as he can before he goes down.

    The latter episode, something of an upbeat contrast to the discomfort that comes with the former, centers on how Westerberg High School navigates an active shooter drill. Much of the comedy comes from how absurd most of the school’s practices are — including taking any “dead” kids from the drill to a room named Heaven, full of snacks and music that the surviving children find themselves longing for — but it also serves to show how easily students like JD can manipulate the information they’re given for “safety” into something malicious, like blueprints for massacre. The closest comparison point for this pair of episodes might be Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, in terms of exploring the mentality of a school shooter, though the show’s sense of humor (which one might compare to this year’s Bottoms if that movie was tonally consistent) offered something of a respite from the bleakness of it all.

    It is no surprise that Heathers courted controversy around its rather shameless criticism of American culture, the prioritization of guns as a faulty means of defense, and the educational system’s blatant ignorance around the actual needs of students. This kind of bold commentary was, unfortunately, the kind of thing that led Paramount to delay, edit, and ultimately cancel the series before it had even finished airing. Multiple real-life tragedies — notably the shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe in 2018 — were the main reasons why the studio got cold feet about releasing a show that featured such events, despite the fact that Heathers interrogated the very way they happen.

    To date, the series remains unavailable in its entirety unless one is willing to pirate it, its final two episodes butchered in its only purchasable form. It is nothing short of a damn shame that the series was so easily thrown aside by everyone: a studio that didn’t have faith in its production, the critics that glossed over its dense commentary, and the very audiences who were never able to enjoy the series in full. This, heartbreakingly, left it to fall prey to the very same brand of “cancel culture” that the series criticized so smartly.

    With each viewing of the series — and in light of the teaser that implied the formula would transition into the French Revolution in its scrapped second season — it becomes all the more clear that Heathers could have been the immensely queer and murderous anthology series we deserved. In a world where Ryan Murphy continues to churn out lackluster social commentary through myriad monstrosities on the interminable American Horror Story, Jason Micallef gave us a series that actually had something to say, and could deliver those statements with style and panache.

    Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.

    TOPICS: Heathers