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'Heathers,' the 1980s cult classic, is reborn in a tone-deaf Paramount TV remake claiming LGBT teens are the real bullies

Considering the 2018 landscape, it’s possible a darker reboot could have worked if handled delicately. Sadly, Paramount took the opposite approach.
Scene from Heathers
Westerburgh High gets a new set of "Heathers."Michael Yarish / Paramount Pictures

There was never going to be a good time for the Paramount Network to release its remake of “Heathers.”

Mining the 1980s for inspiration, if not directly rebooting with the same characters, has become the go-to strategy for TV networks (and Hollywood, too). But it’s all in how you update, and in this case, Paramount made every bad decision in the book. In the end, what was originally planned to be the network’s flagship show at launch is now being released all at once over the next five days, starting on Thursday, Oct. 25.

How did this happen? The 1998 cult classic introduced the world to Westerburg High School, a satirical reflection of conformity and classism. Three rich preppy girls, all named Heather, run the school with their football jock boyfriends. Veronica (Winona Ryder), is a tortured artist type who does everything she can to fit in with them, but when she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), an outcast in a trench coat who carries guns full of blank bullets to shoot at his torturers, everything goes sideways. Murders happen, cover-ups follow, and finally, Veronica finds herself having to stand up to J.D. and his plot to blow up the whole school in a suicide vest.

At the time, all of this was satire. Guns in school? Suicide bomber teens? Boys in trench coats hoarding arsenals? Considering the 2018 landscape, it’s possible an even darker reboot could have worked, but it would have to be handled delicately. Paramount, instead, took the opposite approach.

Because the world has changed a lot since the 1980s, politically and culturally. Fat shaming, gay-baiting and bigoted behavior is no longer tolerated the way it once was. In the show’s retelling, this progressive swing of the pendulum has magically made the once trampled underdogs the queens of the school, and the white, heterosexual rich kids are somehow the downtrodden. Our new Heathers are a plus-sized “fashionista” obsessed with her Instagram (Melanie Field), an African-American lesbian (Jasmine Mathews) and a genderqueer elitist (Brendan Scannell). Meanwhile, Veronica (Grace Victoria Cox), now a blonde-haired, blue-eyed prep, is shamed for being too normal.

What was once a mockery of classism and cliques is replaced with identity politics hysteria, turning so-called social justice warriors into creatures who use political correctness to gain power.

What was once a mockery of classism and cliques is replaced with identity politics hysteria, turning so-called social justice warriors into creatures who use political correctness to gain power, and sneer at those who dare to be Christian. Perhaps in smarter, wittier hands, this might have come off as a satire of right-wing fears. Or it could have leaned into the idea that it doesn’t matter which group in high school winds up at the top of the food chain, absolute power always corrupts. But this is not what happened. As Heather Chandler says in the new series: “We're not doing irony anymore. Keep up.”

Instead the show is perfectly content to feed into the narrative of white victimization, seemingly without awareness of its own message. Veronica and JD (James Scully), now reimagined as a perfectly bland, CW-style heartthrob hero, pick off these fantasy left-wing bullies like they’re starring in some Tomi Lahren version of reality. No wonder The Daily Caller’s writer loved it.

All of this happens before the show even gets to the gun violence and suicides, which are handled with such little tact it’s horrifying. Filming a school shooting in the style of a first-person video game is questionable at best. But taking a failed murder (excused as a failed suicide attempt) and having the character turn it into a narrative for self-promotional purposes is incredibly tone-deaf, especially considering the higher rates of self-harm in minority populations.

“Heathers” was originally supposed to debut on March 7th of this year, a foundational part of the primetime lineup for the newly rebranded Paramount Network (previously known as Spike TV.) But then, on February 14, the Parkland shooting happened. Paramount initially did not plan to delay the premiere of the series, but when the embargo lifted on February 26 to scathing reviews, they pulled it from the lineup. “Heathers” was then rescheduled as a July release, as that felt like a month when no school shootings would occur. But even that didn’t work, and by the beginning of June the show was declared permanently shelved.

Exactly what unshelved it four months later is unclear. Perhaps someone decided presenting an “edited” version in a five-night run — in the middle of the fall TV season — was preferable to facing any contractual consequences if it never ran at all. But exactly what was edited isn’t clear either. If the shooting is censored, what does that leave — other than a profound lack of taste? I guess we'll find out.

So far, the series has been lucky in that none of the near-daily mass shootings in this country have reached "stop the news cycle" proportions recently. On the other hand, the show is premiering just as the transgender population finds itself under renewed attack from the Trump administration. Not exactly perfect timing for a show that insists America's LGBTQ youth are the real high school bullies.