Political Correctness Becomes the Target of Paramount’s ‘Heathers’

What a modern day outsider would rebel against poses a serious dilemma for Paramount’s “Heathers.” This sloppy TV update of the 1988 cult classic film wants to be a shocker while walking a very sensitive line. Political correctness and liberal hypocrisy become the main targets in this incarnation as it finally arrives in a 5-night event after months of controversy. Originally slated for a March release, it was temporarily shelved following the Parkland, Florida high school shootings. Now it can finally be seen and while it has visual style, its bite is off. If those of us not in high school are to believe this new “Heathers,” then the jocks and cool kids are now at the mercy of the progressive, gender-defying millennials.  Apparently you won’t get picked on for being fat, but for calling someone fat.

This time around Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox) is a blonde prep who is a docile member of the Heathers, the vicious trend-setting clique that keeps the school’s populace in check. The Heathers are made up of the ruthless, plus-size leader Heather Chandler (Melanie Field), gay and African American Heather McNamara (Jasmine Matthews) and the genderqueer Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell). Heather Chandler spends her time strolling through the halls, flanked by McNamara and Duke, looking for anyone wearing a politically incorrect t-shirt, being misogynist or homophobic (“We’re not doing irony anymore. Keep up”). She makes a jock remove his t-shirt for its racist football Native American logo, taking video to then post it online and turn the guy into an instant social media pariah. Veronica becomes a target because, well, she’s just too ordinary. Enter J.D. (James Scully), a rebel rich kid whose father runs a fracking company. J.D. is a nihilist who sees most of the social order at the school as a joke. He lures Veronica into a scheme to shame Heather through a staged selfie involving a Nazi hat and the chugging of a snack. When they try to pull it off it seems like Heather drops dead. This results in a new hall queen taking over, Betty Finn (Nikki SooHoo).

When the original “Heathers” appeared in 1988, with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater playing the roles now taken over by Cox and Scully, much of its dark humor and anarchic violence was indeed purely satirical. It was a wonderfully vicious takedown of the cliques that form within high school, a precursor of sorts to later roasts like “Mean Girls.” This new “Heathers” isn’t provocative, just in bad taste. The writing feels like it’s taking advantage of certain buzzwords to deliver the equivalent of a bad fart joke. Just the opening scene of the pilot is a brutal bit delivered without subtly or tact as a child J.D. watches his mother shoot herself in a burning house. A girl will later slit her wrists and walk down a skating ring, dripping blood, then arrives at home and plops on the couch in-between her parents, who are oblivious to her situation. Suicide, murder and other delicacies of dark humor are splashed around carelessly. Some of the tone is similar to Netflix’s recent and notorious “Insatiable,” which attempted to use issues like eating disorders for jokes that fell offensively flat.

But the strangest angle the show chooses to take is turning so-called social justice warriors into the villains. The show entraps itself by trying to make fun of current sensitivities without really satirizing them. There isn’t a clear point or message. Do the showrunners think we’re overdoing it with ongoing debates over gender, sexuality and race? It could be the real target is the whole fad of being “fake-woke,” meaning pretending to be all for the cause when it’s just for show. One joke is funny when Veronica’s parents are looking at an article in the news about refugees and Veronica’s mom worries more about “the poor dog” in the picture. But then other gags are flat and poorly thought out. McNamara is the gay Heather, but she’s caught making out with a male teacher, so now she becomes a pariah for faking her sexual orientation. The school faculty is a parade of dialogue that tries too hard as one teacher is a double-sided feminist preaching against the patriarchy while the principle says, astounded, “fat kids are popular now?” Other faculty explain that, “gay and black kids are over now” while Asian ones never “popped.” The casting is also needlessly asking for head shaking. The white “wokes” are overthrown by an Asian reactionary who viciously tells the transgender Duke to get out of the girl’s bathroom. Gone is the sharper, clearer satire of the movie, where the intellectual Veronica seeks to overthrow the shallow, bullying Heathers.

The best thing the show has going for it is its neon look, which is similar to the kind of pop art aesthetic of the CW’s “Riverdale.” What’s missing better focused aims and a keener sense of satire. In the current climate you can’t just make fun of these issues, there needs to be a smarter approach. Without a better justification for its material, this new “Heathers” wants to set off alarms without much of a payoff.

Heathers” season one premieres Oct. 25 at 10 p.m. ET with new episodes airing nightly until Oct. 29 on Paramount.