'Heathers' and our Mass-Shooting Era

The delay of this satiric series about teens and murder speaks to our times

click to enlarge (L-R) Heathers’ Jasmine Mathews, Melanie Field, Brendan Scannell - PHOTO: Courtesy of Paramount Network
PHOTO: Courtesy of Paramount Network
(L-R) Heathers’ Jasmine Mathews, Melanie Field, Brendan Scannell

News of a modern Heathers TV reboot — based on the cult classic 1989 film — garnered mixed reactions to say the least. Fans of the original lamented Hollywood messing with yet another classic, wherein Winona Ryder and Christian Slater take down members of their school’s cruel clique. 

While remakes are often criticized for missing the point of or not remaining true to the source, Heathers avoids those pitfalls pretty well. While staying planted in present day, the pilot includes many references to the film. But the deeper issue with this dark comedy is whether now is really an appropriate time to air a show about teen-on-teen violence, suicide and a high school murder spree.

The answer: Apparently not. Originally set to premiere this Wednesday on Paramount Network (formerly Spike), the series was recently pulled, with the network citing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that rocked Parkland, Fla. and the country on Valentine’s Day as the reason. Given the heartbreaking prevalence of gun violence, bullying and teen suicide, will there ever be a “right time” for Heathers?

There are plenty of violent shows out there — The Punisher comes to mind. But where the Marvel thriller handled gun violence by unabashedly showing its horror and ultimately condemning terror, Heathers handles brutal crimes with a heavy dose of irony. Splashed in neon colors with contemporary covers of ’80s jams, the tone — very similar to the original film — definitely minimizes the grim subject matter that sadly does exist in the real world. Thirty years ago, everything about the film — from the cynical dialogue to the violence — was so over-the-top. Children killing themselves and one another didn’t populate the headlines, and the fact that this is a show about (but not necessarily for) teens is significant.

Take 13 Reasons Why, for example. The drawn-out look at a young woman’s suicide, how she got to that point and her death’s effects on her classmates caused quite a stir, as parents and teachers feared it might encourage copycat behavior. The difference is that 13 Reasons Why, a straightforward and highly emotional drama, read like a bleak after-school special. There was no sarcasm, irony or dark humor, which is at the core of Heathers.

This show is not based in reality — it’s a caricature, down to the Khloé Kardashian quote on the school marquee. Heathers takes place in a world where being the most “other,” checking the most self-identifying boxes, gives you the highest credo. Veronica (Grace Victoria Cox, sufficiently taking over Ryder’s role) is mocked for “only” being half-Jewish, as if that’s not edgy enough. One Heather is threatened to be outed as straight. It’s like a Fox News interpretation of the dreaded liberal millennial/Gen Z experience, exaggerated enough to make it pretty funny.

You can’t deny this satire is intriguing. It’s been described as a Trumpian dystopia, but I think that points more to the ridiculousness of it rather than glorifying it.

Then you have the Heathers themselves, who represent a big departure from the film. The cookie-cutter Wasps of ’89 are replaced by a plus-sized queen bee and her minions, the genderqueer Heath and a black-lesbian Heather. Meanwhile, clueless adults in this universe struggle to comprehend how a “fat kid” could be popular. It’s both refreshing and cringeworthy — yes, the traditional outsider types can be the bullies of today, but they’re still subjected to the other end of that torment.

Feared by their peers, the Heathers are truly equal opportunity offenders, with a uniquely contemporary M.O.: terrorizing anyone who isn’t woke. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Native American mascot is punishable by public embarrassment and a full social media takedown. It really does speak to the outrage culture so unique to this internet-raised generation.

Does it make sense to postpone such a show at this poignant time? Of course. But, at the same time, let’s just make sure we point our attention and outrage at the appropriate channels that let mass shootings happen — those outside of our televisions.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern