Why now is the right time to release Heathers — not delay it: EW critic essay
For years — for decades now — you always heard two things about the 1988 dark comedy masterpiece Heathers. “It’s a great film,” because it is. And: “They could never make that today,” because it’s a film about high schoolers killing high schoolers. Past a certain point in American history, that was only allowed to happen in real life.
And then the Paramount Network announced a small screen remake of Heathers. Two big hot TV trends in this announcement. Everything gets rebooted, yes. But also: anything goes, man! A network only recently rebranded out of casual dudery tries to earn zeitgeist-y buzz with a show about a body-positive bully, her gender-queer Wormtongue, and the kids who dream of killing them.
I have seen five episodes of the new Heathers. I don’t like it, but this isn’t a review. In the wake of the February 14 horror at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland…
Wait, no, more accurate to say: In the wake of a blessedly ongoing outcry over our country’s apocalyptically lax gun laws, an outcry that has continued for weeks longer than the media cycle usually allows after our country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings, the Paramount Network has decided to delay the March 7 release of Heathers. In a statement, the network explained:
Brief pause here to remind the reader of past instances where real-life mass shootings — which happen with such depressing regularity in our country that any coherent-thinking adult without a fetish for death machines can obviously see we need tighter gun restrictions and also, come on, nobody besides James Bond in GoldenEye 64 needs more than two guns…Sorry, brief pause to remind you when real-life violence led to TV-show delays: Columbine and then the Buffy season 3 finale, Baton Rouge and then the series premiere of USA’s Shooter, Las Vegas and then the initial New York Comic-Con screening of Marvel’s The Punisher. One of those things wound up being pretty good, and then the other two are Shooter and The Punisher.
None of the above featured a scene quite as incendiary as the sequence that begins the fifth episode of Heathers. This isn’t really a spoiler: It’s a long sequence of a first-person POV walking through a regular high school and shooting people. It’s meant to be a video game: One of the main characters in Heathers is playing it on his smartphone. This character has already killed one of his fellow high schoolers, but everything on the Heathers show happens in quote marks, so you’re encouraged to read this whole thing as funny. (The Heathers film, of course, had the benefit of being actually funny — actually, a masterpiece, minting catchphrases, partially inventing Winona Ryder, doing something unprintable to the whole John Hughes-ian dream of high school, but doing it gently, with a chainsaw.)
Now, obviously, “a scene with a school shooting” sounds awful right now. (Because it’s not really an important scene for the plot, I imagine it might get deleted when/if the episode finally airs.) Just as obviously, the makers of Heathers didn’t film that scene because they think guns are awesome, or because they’re hoping to give their audience some cool ideas about social interaction. It’s a dumb joke, no doubt, and bad comedy is the kind of thing that becomes a Conversation every day now, because opinion sections need clicks and people go to social media because they love feeling rage. If you think the makers of Heathers don’t understand the fire they’re playing with — well, you’re probably right.
And the show has much deeper, weirder problems that can make the whole thing feel misbegotten. It tries to combine sincere aspirational identity politics with brutal camp cynicism, and the mix just never works. I described it as a “MAGA fever dream” in my review running in this week’s EW, and the saddest thing about neo-Heathers is that you can easily imagine it was produced by people who believe fervently in anti-MAGA ideology. Anti-Trumpists produce Trumpist art: Kids, this was 2018!
But, look, they’ve made this thing now. And the easy joke about the Heathers delay is that there is no moment in recent or future American history when this scene will seem appropriate. You have to imagine everyone knew this, right? The people who made Heathers, the network that produced it. You make a show like this, film a scene like that, because you want controversy. And when you create a TV series built on a foundation of total moral bankruptcy, you have a few options. You can try to justify your show’s stupid ideas, like how The Punisher kept trotting out Frank Castle’s murdered family and his PTSD to prove that here was a kind, gentle, grief-stricken psychotic gun fascist who wuvved his daughter. Or you can pretend your show doesn’t have a lot of stupid ideas, like how Jack Webb clearly felt Dragnet was a Bible for a beautiful world where policemen have infinite power and zero oversight.
Or you can take the approach of neo-Heathers and pretend everything’s a goof: The same episode with the school shooting video game also includes a sign posted by the main high school, “9 DAYS WITHOUT A SUICIDE, LET’S KEEP IT UP.”
The most difficult option is to make an actual good TV series, which Heathers only is about 2.37% of the time. But I don’t think it’s right to delay the show, at least not for the reasons Paramount has stated. There’s this overarching idea in American life now, an unsettling Venn Diagram where the moralizing right meets the moralizing left: That there are Things We Shouldn’t See, or Things We Shouldn’t Joke About, or A Right Moment For Some Things. Pushing Heathers back is a weird sop to both extremes: the Pearl-clutching NCIS lovers fearful of a show about teen sex/teen violence/gender-exploding teen existence, and the trigger-warning-happy think-piecers who have deep theories about Disney-Marvel’s politics and can explain in four tweets why UnREAL‘s feminism doesn’t trump its racism.
I obviously lean more towards the latter, because I used the phrase “military-industrial complex” in a Captain America blog post and because I worry that NCIS is chicken soup for the military-industrial complex’s soul. I also think no one should have guns, like at all, like let’s throw them all in a volcano tomorrow. (Death machine fetishists will say, “Anyone who wants a gun will find a way to get a gun,” which is the kind of thing you only say if you’re the kind of person who knows how the current gun laws make it easy for any dumbo to illegally purchase an assault rifle.)
But this really isn’t about politics! It’s about art, which can be political but is never just political. I don’t think Heathers is good art — or even halfway decent entertainment, but I do believe fervently that this, right now, is absolutely the moment to release it. Because unless our laws change soon, there will never be an uncontroversial moment for a scene about school shootings. Which just means Heathers — in its blathering, candy-coated, stop-hitting-yourself way — has tapped into something. There are school shootings on American television too often; can’t one of those shootings should be fictional? There’s a notion that “entertainment” shouldn’t dig into horrible things like this, but the mass shooters and guns that plague this country aren’t killing people because a cable show convinced them it was a good idea. (ASIDE: If you believe the shooting epidemic is somehow caused by imitative behavior from pop culture, there are much cooler-looking, more popular, and even less cleareyed violent entertainments to pick on. END OF ASIDE.)
The school-shooting scene in Heathers stuck with me, much more than the show’s wrongheaded woke-cartoon provocations. It disturbed me, and I believe there is value in feeling disturbed by art and entertainment. Disturbed, like, “Elephant was full of crap and I’ve never forgotten it.” Disturbed, like, “Well, this inane show is stupidly portraying an awful thing that, holy hell, happens way too often in real life.”
The Paramount Network mentions in their statement respect for the victims, their families, and loved ones. Some of the surviving students from Parkland have become public figures and vocal anti-gun crusaders: They are real heroes, and I suspect they have good enough taste to never watch Heathers. But the network’s respect is phony, I think, as phony as the respect NRA-suckling politicians pretend towards after a mass shooting. If you think making a violent show about high schoolers is wrong this week, then it’s always wrong, because gun violence in our schools is a decades-long epidemic.
There is a hot industry theory that Paramount is trying to push Heathers away from the show’s generally bad reviews. But look: if you ever thought it was worthwhile to make a satirical and risky comedy about high schoolers, then now is your moment, Paramount Network! Go and risk! Start a full court press in the media. Messaging: “We know there’s no good time to release this show, because there are only bad times in American high schools, and that is why we made this show, Jimmy. Gaze into our modern dystopia. If you think our jokes are dumb, you should see what people say to defend their Constitutional right to bump stocks.”
And if you, the viewer, happen to watch Heathers, and get to That School Shooting Scene, and feel outraged? Good! Feel outraged! But don’t you dare feel more outraged than you do by the actual horrifying events this show is only just barely attempting to dramatize. If you’re angry, go to the march, go to the voting booth, call your senators, call your friends, call your enemies. The Heathers reboot won’t fix what’s broken, but let’s not pretend our failed comedy is remotely as disturbing as our failed gun laws.