Warning: This article contains spoilers and descriptions of violence.
From USA Today to The Verge, it seems like almost every single TV critic with an outlet for publication is bashing on the newest revival of “Heathers,” which commemorates the 30 year anniversary of the movie. Called everything from a “troubled journey” to “tone-deaf,” the Paramount TV series has had a rough news cycle, to say the least, but these mudslinging articles are missing the point.
“Heathers” was never about appealing to the masses and garnering critical acclaim. The term “cult film” exists for a reason. Even since its debut in 1988, the story was always geared towards students who could truly appreciate the exaggerated spectacle of high school politics, not some 40-something who could easily misconstrue the purpose of the show’s aspects.
The fact that Heather Duke is gay, for example, is not a testimony to how “LGBTQ teens are the real bullies,” as reported by NBC. It’s a hyperbole of the emerging authority the queer community has gained in recent years, one that still cannot afford openly-gay adolescents the luxury of being treated as equals, let alone enable the abuse of power associated with bullying.
Veronica’s extreme embodiment of feminism acts in parallel structure: after manipulating JD, her boyfriend, into thinking that their ploy to kill Heather Chandler was about to be exposed, Veronica blows up his car as a convoluted scheme to demand for respect. These circumstances become even more amplified when Veronica locks up her own lover in a psych ward after JD kisses her ex-best friend.
The entire premise of JD’s and Veronica’s tumultuous relationship is to redefine what it means to be “toxically feminist,” but at the expense of an ethical dilemma. Unlike the movie where Veronica was clearly a virtuous beacon, the social commentary of the TV series forces the characters to abound with moral ambivalence.
Who do you root for, the good-girl-turned-psychopath Veronica; her “pitiful” lover who schemes to give a quite-literally explosive end to prom; or Heather Chandler, the merciless queen of Westerburg High who contributes to the overall satire even more with her Supreme-resembling “i am suicide” campaign? The only “good” in this story is Betty, an overachieving Asian student whose credibility is completely dismissed due to her receiving an “A-”, and the only satisfaction you receive is Chandler’s reduction to a footnote while Veronica snags the headline without even trying.
The TV series’ greatest flaw, however, stems from the unnecessary bloodshed that was wisely omitted in the movie. Just look at the trail of blood high school students skate through after Heather McNamara slits her own wrists. The visceral imagery can leave a bitter taste in anyone’s mouth with the massive scale of blood trickled on the railings and blacktop street.
To fully acknowledge the scene though, you also have to keep in mind that its main function is to imitate that same melodramatic atmosphere from 1988 without the same old tricks. Of course the shattered table of Chandler’s “suicide” was incorporated back into the revival, but McNamara’s suicide wasn’t the best substitution to less grotesque campy acts found in the original story.
Tackling topical subjects, on the other hand, was one process the modern rendition of “Heathers” accomplished adeptly. While the one-liners were more bombastic than subtle, they certainly got the point across from start to finish. There’s an implicit eye-roll at how racially-charged society has become as Heather Chandler takes a stand for Dylen Lutz after seeing a shirt that offends his culture as a “1/16th First Nations peoples,” and the punch at Trump is perfect black comedy when his proposal to arm teachers becomes a reality (“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”) and ends up killing an official from the State Board of Education.
Perhaps 2018 wasn’t the best year to debut “Heathers,” considering the precarity of America with the #metoo movement and the bombardment of school shootings (which was also the main reason for the one-year delay in release). But at the same time, the stinging bite of lines like “Heather Chandler’s suicide was better. Heather M’s felt forced” becomes amplified with the hypersensitivity of society while the necessity to take action and prevent “Heathers” from becoming a reality shines through better than it would have in previous years.
It can be so easy to distort the true message of “Heathers” for a specious criticism, twisting each character into some egregious offense for a sensational headline and clicks. But the execution of the TV series was as perfect as could be, retelling a familiar story without coming off as a carbon copy of its predecessor and offering a caustic statement relevant to modern society.