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Teen Drama Tropes Haunt Paramount+'s Lifeless New Series

Based on an as-yet-unpublished graphic novel, School Spirits is seriously lacking in imagination.
  • Sarah Yarkin, Milo Mannheim, Peyton List, and Nick Pugliese in School Spirits. (Photo Credit: Ed Araquel/Paramount+)
    Sarah Yarkin, Milo Mannheim, Peyton List, and Nick Pugliese in School Spirits. (Photo Credit: Ed Araquel/Paramount+)

    School Spirits is based on a graphic novel that won’t be released for almost a year, but anyone who’s encountered a genre story about teens will feel like they know the show anyway. There’s almost nothing in this Paramount+ series that doesn’t play like a copy of something else, from the haunted high school premise to the shy boy with a crush on his best friend. That’s not to say knockoffs can’t be entertaining. Of course they can be. But they have to deliver a little sparkle, or at least some memorable performances. This cookie-cutter series leaves those ingredients out of the recipe.

    In the first scene, young Maddie Nears (Peyton List) discovers she has died at her high school and will now spend eternity wandering the halls. This being a genre teen series, she also has to solve a mystery, just like Wednesday Addams on Netflix’s Wednesday and almost all the kids in the extended Riverdale universe. And what’s more, she has to solve the mystery of her own death, which happens to be the plot of Christopher Pike’s novel Remember Me. That could still be interesting if Maddie had some spunk, but List plays her as a sullen kid who has decided that being irritated is her thing and refuses to let it go. Her other major trait is her love of stating the obvious. She’s always slapping a locker in frustration, then saying, “I’m so frustrated!” Viewers who are paying the slightest bit of attention may get so frustrated with her redundant dialogue they decide to watch something else.

    Those who stick around will notice even more familiar details. As the mystery unfolds, one of the first suspects in Maddie’s death is her rebellious boyfriend Xavier (Spencer MacPherson), whose father just happens to be the local sheriff. Stories like this frequently have a rebellious outcast boyfriend (look at half the seasons of American Horror Story), and nothing underlines the complicated relationship between teens and authority like somebody’s parent being a cop (consider several of the Scream movies). But the show is quick to confuse the issue. Xander looks innocent one moment and guilty the next, and the pileup of “shocking” twists becomes predictable. The same goes for a supposedly wonderful teacher, whose kindness means they’re almost guaranteed to have a dark secret.

    Even a low-rent mystery can be satisfying if it’s well constructed, but School Spirits plays fast and loose with its internal rules. When Maddie starts meeting other ghosts at her school, they repeatedly tell her that the dead cannot communicate with the living, ever. By the second episode, though, she’s made contact with a living friend. It’s lucky for Maddie — and convenient for showrunner Oliver Goldstick — that she is the only ghost who can sidestep this communication barrier.

    Meanwhile, series creators Nate and Megan Trinrud (who also wrote the forthcoming graphic novel) give themselves a narrative shortcut by cooking up at least 12 other ghosts at Maddie’s school, all from different eras. That gives them plenty of opportunities to write jokes about old haircuts and fashions, and it gives Maddie plenty of spectral confidantes who can pop in to deliver exposition whenever it’s needed.

    To facilitate these information dumps, Maggie vents her feelings at a daily support group with some of the other teen spirits. That gives the show an opportunity to crib emotional beats from The Breakfast Club, another story about kids who are stuck in their high school. But at least those characters are alive. For School Spirits, lifting something from a straightforward, realistic drama almost counts as an innovation.

    School Spirits premieres March 9 on Paramount+. New episodes premiere on Thursdays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: School Spirits, Paramount+, Megan Trinrud, Nate Trinrud, Oliver Goldstick, Peyton List, Spencer MacPherson