Turning Heathers into a TV show was doomed from the start
Lick it up, baby. Lick it up.
In sociology, a reflection hypothesis asserts that mass media must always reflect the current social values of the general population. After all, a text can be viewed as more attractive and therefore, more successful when the audience is able to portray realism that is in keeping with the social and political climate of the time, and we can see this shift in representation when we look at how television and film have adjusted their own to adhere to the social climate of the past few years. Both television and film have seen an increase in not only a black female presence in the media but an accurate representation of these characters. Shows like Netflix's Chewing Gum and Dear White People accurately depict how black women navigate through today's social climate as both main characters tackle racism, fetishism, and white privilege. At a time where racism in America has been both an extremely scary issue and gravely understated in the media, these representations of black women are held to a higher standard because they are realistic. But what happens when the media does not reflect current social values? Or maybe attempts to reflect too much realism onto the small screen? Well, the condemnation of Paramount's short-lived television revival of the cult classic Heathers, speaks for itself.
First and foremost, if you have never seen Michael Lehmann's 1988 cult classic, in the words of Heather Chandler "well f**k me gently with a chainsaw". Perhaps one of the best teen films of all time, Heathers tells the story of Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), a member of the most popular clique at Westerburg High, The Heathers. When she begins to disagree with the bullying inflicted by group leader Heather Chandler, Veronica and her new boyfriend JD (Christian Slater) attempt to confront her. Giving Heather a glass of Drain-O instead of the orange juice and milk cocktail Veronica had made to see her throw up, Veronica and JD accidentally kill her. To avoid jail time, the couple stages the murder as a suicide. As the film goes on, more of Westerburg's bullies die in a similar fate, and Veronica begins to notice that JD has been intentionally murdering every student that had been bullying him at school. Heathers is equal parts dark and comedic and the outcome is extraordinary. Yes, the content is intense and rather sadistic, but its grim nature meshes perfectly with the sheer hardships that come with being a high school student. As expressed throughout the film on multiple occasions, high school can be hell for some people and JD's planted bomb in the boiler room of Westerburg High to kill everyone who had wronged him in high school reflects this "hell" quite metaphorically.
However, through the many hours I have devoted to watching Heathers and convincing other people to do the same, I find myself consistently repeating "this could never be made today", and why is that? High school is still a rather bleak time for a post-pubescent teen who is forced to navigate through a world that is completely different than elementary school. Friend groups change, workload increases, and not to mention the pressure that comes with having to meet new people. So if high school is a common experience, then why shouldn't Paramount be able to create a successful Heathers show? Well, at a time where school shootings are omnipresent and teen suicide is still an extremely pressing issue, releasing a show that adds a comedic element to what is negatively impacting society just comes off as cringy and immoral.
Heathers was successful in 1988 because it was able to delineate the Gen X lifestyle of the majority of its audience. Unlike the baby boomers before them, Gen Xers had commonly shown a disdain for authority. In their youth, they refused the 9 to 5 structured workplace and they encouraged non-conformity-- I mean just take a look at the characters in The Breakfast Club. Gen Zs, which I would argue are the major demographic of which Heather's the television show strived to connect with, tweak some of the major characteristics of a Gen X personality. They don't refuse the 9 to 5 lifestyle but challenge it. Now, most teens and young adults are working at an early age from their phones in the comfort of their own beds. There's a reason why Gen Z is known as the entrepreneurial generation!
I know Heathers has absolutely nothing to do with working a 9-5, but when we compare Winona Ryder's character to the teens of today, they aren't exactly the same. Not only was she dependent upon a man to help solve her problems with Heather, but in "accidentally" killing every student she doesn't agree with, she is running away from her problems instead of facing them head-on. If teens today are more independent than they've ever been, then how can we expect a show that depicts killing one another to gain a foot on the social ladder to be relatable to its audience?
If the creators of the Heathers TV show really wanted to make this mess work, they would have studied the teens of today and known that they aren't like they used to be. Sure, making the new Heather an internet star adds some realism to what is seen as popular today, but also depicting her as an environmental advocate, a hipster, and an outspoken woman against racism at her school, just makes her position as a powerful bully, so confusing for a viewer. Take the first lunchroom scene, for example, when Heather calls out a jock named Ram for wearing a shirt with extremely racist symbolism on it. The scene is filmed as if the director wants us to feel bad for Ram, but the truth is Heather is right. In the 1988 film, the Heathers were so believable as awful high school bullies because they were privileged and high classed and used this power to hoist them above everyone else at Westerberg. Even after Heather died, she used her power to make suicide a popular trend. The truth of the matter is this show is depicting high school students in a light that is extremely different from what they really are. Is it wrong to call out someone for wearing racially inappropriate garments? Are we not allowed to speak out against climate change?
The one thing the show does get right, in an extremely blunt and indecorous way, is its depiction of high school violence in America. To add insult to injury, it doesn't help that the show's first season was continuously postponed due to an array of school shootings across America.
However, the teens of 2018- in all of their strong, independent glory- have spoken. Heathers is not only a completely misguided view of current society but also will not be returning to the small screens in 2019. So, in the pleasantly ironic words of Mr. JD, "the extreme always seems to make an impression".