Since Paramount Network released the first episode of its Heathers television adaptation on the show’s website, an unlikely group has been advocating for the highly anticipated series. One particularly adoring tweet from Ian Miles Cheong, a writer for Tucker Carlson’s conservative rag The Daily Caller, reads, “I absolutely love the new Heathers.”
So how exactly did Heathers, the 1988 original version of which acerbically critiqued its wealthy, popular characters, become a quick favorite among right-wing Redditors? To start, Heathers isn’t so much a reboot of Michael Lehmann’s film as it is an inversion. The series replaces the original trio of Heathers—all of them white, rich, and thin—with a “fat Heather,” a “black lesbian Heather,” and a “genderqueer Heather.” In doing so, it turns people with marginalized identities into bullies and their white, cis hetero peers into the persecuted. Heathers plays directly into the far-right fear that minorities are “taking over,” that the formerly privileged are now second-class citizens.
While the film is an indictment of conformity and cliques, the series is preoccupied with so-called identity politics. At Westerburg High School, marginalized students serve as cultural capital; the more alternative labels one can amass, the better. When Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) sees the purportedly lesbian Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) making out with a male teacher, Duke is giddy: “Heather Chandler is going to shit herself skinny when she finds out our black lesbian friend is actually only black!”
And Westerburg High’s teachers fetishize otherness as much as, if not more than, the students. In the show’s pilot episode, a guidance counselor tells the blond-haired, blue-eyed Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox) that colleges “need to know your identity—your brand.” Veronica’s 4.2 GPA and high SAT score just won’t cut it; maybe if she were a hermaphrodite, the guidance counselor suggests, Ivy League schools might be interested.
The film’s dark subject matter is buoyed by quick-tongued dialogue and outrageous one-liners, but the series lacks for that comic brio. Even when it references famous lines from the film, the show feels forced. Veronica tells her best friend/worst enemy, Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), to “lick it up,” but without the caustic snarl of Winona Ryder’s delivery. Worse, some of the jokes are regressive and tone deaf: When a college student tells Veronica, “[I’m] making it very clear I stopped as soon as I heard the word no,” consent is treated as a punchline. Others only serve to depict teens as unreasonably narcissistic and obsessed with how many Instagram followers they have. The tone is more disdainful than satirical, though the show’s writers, like Price Peterson, would have you think otherwise. In a tweet he’s since deleted, Peterson derided critics for being “blind to irony & satire.”
Though the show’s commentary on identity politics is meant to be sardonic, it’s unclear for whom the jokes are meant. Heathers is ostensibly being pitched to young people, but it seems to despise the very demographic it’s trying to attract. All of the teenagers are depicted as sociopaths, social climbers, or disingenuous activists. Heather Chandler in particular is portrayed as a vapid “social justice warrior” for whom Instagram “likes” are more important than enacting real change. When Veronica and J.D. (James Scully) fail to execute the most popular girl in school—just one of the ways the show’s plot differs from that of the film—she steps into the limelight as “the new face of suicide,” selling branded T-shirts, snapping selfies, and doing little to help the students with actual suicidal tendencies.
Heathers skewers teen culture without providing any clear reasoning or critical stance, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. While the series depicts everyone at Westerburg High as sociopathic narcissists, actual socially conscious teenagers are changing the conversation around gun control. They’re calling out the NRA, putting Marco Rubio on blast, and planning marches. That’s a perfect rebuttal to the unaffectionate parody of teenagers depicted in the series. There are plenty of shows, such as Dear White People, that showcase the irrefutable power of young adults while smartly satirizing the complexities of identity politics. But if you want to see real teenagers speak truth to power, skip Heathers and turn on the news.