As the Paramount Channel once again shelf episodes of their controversial TV remake of Heathers, it’s time to admit the show was always a bad idea. In an age where remakes, reboots and re-imaginings are the creative bread and butter of the entertainment industry, and nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s is a lucrative well to tape, it seemed inevitable that someone would try to remake Heathers. The 1988 teen comedy, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, is a cult favorite thanks to its pitch-black humor that went well beyond what its genre contemporaries were doing. While the film wasn't a hit upon release, it found great success on the rental market and quickly became one of the best high school movies of its era. Its cultural influence looms large, and it even has a successful off-Broadway musical adaptation. A remake seemed sensible enough.
However, when it was announced in 2016 that TV Land had ordered a series of Heathers set in the present day, the controversy was almost immediate. The rebooted series, written by Jason Micallef and Tom Rosenberg, would re-imagine the vicious Heathers as being a plus size woman, a genderqueer teen, and a biracial woman. The tyrannical bullies in charge of the high school were now the marginalized kids. While a satirical subversion of Heathers with such a cast seemed like an interesting idea in an abstract sense, it overlooked the cultural context and the misguided optics of a story about murder, suicide and bomb threats wherein the audience is intended to root against the demographics most likely to be the victims of teen violence.
Heathers was moved from TV Land to the Paramount Network on March 2017 as part of that new channel's rebranding from its time as Spike. However, in February 2018, a month before its scheduled premiere, the show was delayed in light of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
When the show finally arrived, it was met with terrible reviews, and in June 2018, it was announced that Paramount had dropped the series due to concerns over its content, as well as the tragedy of another school shooting in Santa Fe. Reports surfaced that they had tried to shop the series to other networks, such as Freeform and Netflix, but all passed. Eventually, in October 2018, it was revealed that the Paramount Network had reversed their decision and would air the season in its entirety over the course of one week. Edits had been made to the show and the episode count went from ten to nine. Then this week, it was revealed that an additional two episodes of the show would be pulled following the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead.
Heathers is a movie of its time. It’s a deliberate subversion of its own generation and the output of teen comedies that saturated the pop culture landscape of the era. In those movies, everyone is obsessed with sex or grades or status but in Heathers, the endless hunt for popularity is turned into a sickly deadly game that exposes the true hollowness of high school fame. The high school of Heathers, which screenwriter Daniel Waters deliberately paralleled with the barracks in Full Metal Jacket, is a stifling hellscape that stands as a metaphor for the social brutalities of the Reagan era as well as a training ground for the smothering limitations of adult life. Everyone in that school knows that things aren't going to get any better for them, and in that twisted context, the fantasy of literally blowing everything up holds a lot of sway. Everyone does what the cool girls do and here, it's suicide. Heathers is bleak but hilariously so, and it only works in the context it created for itself.
In 2018, that kind of violent fantasy isn’t a harmless pipe-dream: It’s a fear that millions of American kids live with every day that could easily become a reality. Jokes about school shootings, preventative measures, and killing all the bullies with a bomb can be done well, but context matters, and the writing requires a level of finesse the reboot's writers apparently lacked. The morbid truth of the matter is that if the Paramount Network had to shelve or postpone every episode of Heathers whenever there was a mass shooting, the season would never fully air. Additionally, having the queer kids and the people of color be the ones the people root to die isn’t daring or subversive: It’s just reinforcing societal bigotry.
Remaking nostalgic favorites is always a creative quandary. These are stories that are completely and definitely of their time. You can’t take out certain elements and update them because then it won’t work, nor will it succeed if you simply lift the formula out of its era and put it into a new one without much thought. Paramount Network needed a familiar name to launch their new brand and appeal to young progressive audiences and nostalgia lovers alike, but Heathers was practically doomed from the beginning. It is unlikely we’ll ever see a second season, and that’s probably for the best.