Minutes after pushing “send” on my Globe review of the series reboot of the 1988 movie “Heathers,” I got an e-mail from Paramount Network. The new channel, rebranded from Spike, had decided to delay the “Heathers” premiere from March 7 until later this year, and so my review was put on hold until the new release date.
Good move, Paramount Network. You may have left me with a case of opinion interruptus, but you saved the world — or a small but desirable ad-watching fraction of the world between the ages of 18 and 49 — from a high school series with a puzzling message. For now, at least.
In its press release, Paramount explained that the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 people dead was not the time for a satire involving murder and suicide among teens. The show “takes creative risks in dealing with many of society’s most challenging subjects ranging from personal identity to race and socio-economic status to gun violence,” according to the network’s statement. “While we stand firmly behind the show, in light of the recent tragic events in Florida and out of respect for the victims, their families and loved ones, we feel the right thing to do is delay the premiere.”
And it’s true, it’s uncomfortable taking in jokes about how kids pretend to grieve for a student who has died. As one character puts it, “People will find any way to make someone’s tragedy just another plot twist in their very own grief opera.” Right now, much of the country, and in particular school-age kids, are grieving for real. They don’t need mocking right now, and they don’t need to see any of the other comically portrayed violence toward students in the show.
To be honest, I’m not sure there will ever be a good time for the reboot, which moves the action of the movie to the present day. It’s not just the guns issue; it’s the concept of the entire show. This time, political correctness and sensitivities around body image, LGBTQ issues, teen depression, and bullying are the targets of the satire. The story has been turned inside out, so that the evil Heathers are no longer the rich white girls of the movie, who represented those on top during the greed-is-good 1980s. Now, the reigning clique at Westerburg High in Ohio is made up of those formerly at the bottom of the high school hierarchy — a plus-size Heather, a black lesbian Heather, and a queer Heather. The vicious new trio uses political correctness as a weapon in order to climb to the top.
It’s an odd reversal, one that plays out poorly. Those high schoolers who are “different” are now horribly mean and power-drunk, as they manipulate and shame the others. Early on in the premiere, Heather Chandler (Melanie Field) humiliates one of the school jocks, Ram (Cayden Boyd), by posting a photo of him wearing a shirt that has a Native American mascot on it. He’s a sweet guy who is horrified when he appears to be insensitive. And when it looks like the black lesbian Heather, Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews), may not be a lesbian, Heather Chandler once again brings on the public humiliation. She torments Heather M. for being merely black.
I’m not suggesting that gays, lesbians, people of color, and other minorities should never be villains on TV. That would be politically correct to a fault. Generally speaking, at this point there are enough portrayals of many nondominant groups to balance public perception. But to turn progressivism in general — which includes support for LGBTQ people, gun control, pay equality, and more — into a tool of oppression and destruction isn’t funny. There has to be truth in this kind of cultural humor for it to work. Sure, in some pockets of America, there are politically correct people who are militant and worth laughing about. I see them on Facebook. But to broad-brush it, to turn the movie’s premise inside-out, is hard to watch.
The show portrays how I imagine America looks to white nationalists and homophobes right now, or at least how it looked to white nationalists and homophobes during the Obama administration.
I’m not sure what show creator Jason Micallef had in mind, how he expected his reboot to play at this particular moment. The irony, if he meant the big twist to be ironic, gets lost. It’s all too bad, because some of the writing is entertaining, such as when one annoyed character yells, “What is your father wound, Heather?” The portrayals of the fickleness of groupthink are sharp, too. The kids are all right only when it comes to Instagram, self-branding, fashion, and reminding us that social media is the opium of the people. And there are a few actors in the cast who deserve a breakthrough, particularly Field, who delivers each of her Heather’s many insults with gusto.
But anything good in the series gets pulled down by its rampant hostility, particularly toward those kids who are traditionally marginalized in high school. Maybe in a different era, when high schools aren’t getting shot up, and gay kids aren’t facing backlash, and kids with foreign roots aren’t afraid of deportation, there will be a place for the acrimony and sarcasm of this “Heathers.” At this moment, though, if you’re going to have fun at the expense of America’s youth, you’d better have something more worthwhile to offer, not just wrecking-ball-styled cynicism.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.