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Heathers - Pilot - Review

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(Author’s Note: This review was first published in February based on the pilot posted online before Paramount Network delayed the premiere. I’ve watched the version that aired last night and didn’t notice any differences, but let me know in the comments if you spot any I missed.)

The journey of “Heathers” from cult comedy to television series has been a long one, spanning nine years and four networks. But despite all that time, the pilot is pretty much a “basic cable bitch” remake of the movie.

Indeed, the plot is basically a regurgitation. Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox, “Under the Dome”) is a reluctant friend to Westerburg High’s ruling class – the Heathers, made up of Heather Chandler (newcomer Melanie Field), Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews, “Sweetbitter”), and Heather Duke (newcomer Brendan Scannell). That allegiance is shaken by Veronica’s immediate attraction to new kid Jason “J.D.” Dean (James Scully, “Quantico”) and his “rebel thing.” Veronica later embarrasses Heather Chandler at a college party and Heather Chandler swears to ruin her. J.D. comes up with a revenge plan that, to Veronica’s surprise, doesn’t so much humiliate Heather Chandler as it kills her. He convinces her to cover up the manslaughter as a suicide, and that ends up causing an unexpected ripple effect throughout the school.

There are modern updates. For example, instead of forging a flowery suicide note in Heather Chandler’s handwriting, Veronica and J.D. use an Instagram post with a specific selection of emojis to paint the picture. There’s also sometimes torturous twists on classic lines (“What’s your father wound, Heather?” doesn’t have the same snap), and winks that are more subtle and thus more fun (Veronica and J.D. meet-cute in front of a vending machine of Big Fun potato chips). But there’s also many scenes, bits of dialogue, and music cues ripped straight from the source. There’s just not a lot here to indicate what the show is going to be for nine more episodes.

The biggest change, of course, is that the Heathers are a diverse clique this time around – plus-sized, African-American, and gender-fluid, respectively. It’s a twist on the canon I’m torn about. I think the theme the show is going for is that everyone in high school – no matter “the box [they] check on [their] college application,” as J.D. sneers at one point – is a jerk. Even Veronica, who insists a few times that she’s a “good person,” is kinda as much of an asshole as everyone else. And that’s an interesting idea. But it’s gonna be a tricky tightrope for the show to walk to make sure it comes off that Veronica and J.D. dislike the Heathers for that reason and not because of their other-ness.

Then there’s the acting. Cox and Scully are fine, I guess, but because the pilot mirrors the movie so much, it makes it impossible not to compare them to Winona Ryder and Christian Slater...and they are no Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. A scene where they’re “bantering flirtatiously” in a convenience store feels like it goes on forever because it’s just them. The Heathers obviously get to have more fun, and Field in particular bites into her bitchy snaps with relish. I also liked Deanna Cheng (“Marry Me”) as flaky guidance counselor Ms. Fleming.

Not surprisingly, it was the ways the show veered from the movie that interested me most. First off, there was the cold open, which reveals that the mystery character movie alum Shannen Doherty (“Charmed”) is playing is J.D.’s mom, who commits suicide right in front of him (why she set the house on fire when she was planning to shoot herself, I’m not sure). We’re supposed to see Doherty again so I’m curious how much this inciting incident is going to play into things.

Then there’s Betty Finn (Nikki SooHoo, “Pretty Little Liars”), Veronica’s former BFF. After Heather Chandler dies, Heather McNamara and Heather Duke vie to take her place as Westerburg’s queen bee via delivering the eulogy at a memorial assembly. But it’s Betty who seizes the microphone, gives a rabblerousing speech, and then – to the shock of Veronica, J.D., and the two Heathers – winds up strutting down the hall leading a posse of her own. So could the series be a constant struggle between various characters to be “the Heathers” of the school? That could be kinda fun.

And finally, we find out in the final scene that Heather Chandler didn’t die, but somehow survived all night with a corn nut lodged in her throat, face down in a pile of glass. She’s furious at first, but is stunned when she finds out her “suicide” has made her “fucking famous.” Curious to see what Heather Chandler does. Does she stay hidden to capitalize on this new fame somehow? Does she blackmail Veronica and J.D. re: what they did to her?

So that’s my report card on the pilot episode of “Heathers.” Come grade the premiere for yourself in the comments section.

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