Small town minds, desperate bodies, bloody crimes, and endless voice-overs combine in USA’s next guilty pleasure. Dare Me makes cheerleading deadly.
I’m a sucker for all things wish fulfillment. Teenage dramas where the kids are treated like adults but with the endless exuberance and freedom of youth are my jam. Beverly Hill 90210, Riverdale, Nancy Drew….yes, please. I also admit to more than a passing interest in cheer movies. There isn’t a single Bring It On I haven’t seen. Even the terrible ones. USA’s newest series described loosely as a high school cheerleading murder mystery sounded right up my alley. Dare Me was nothing like I expected, but everything I never knew I wanted.
Filled with intensity, the pilot episode is dramatic. Based on the novel of the same name by Megan Abbott, Dare Me dares you to look away. The opening sequence gives nothing away and yet compels you to watch immediately. Who’s blood is on Addy’s hands? Is someone dead? Filled with seductive energy, this is the show you love but feel kind of weird admitting it. Teenage girls writhe half-naked in lingering shots that would normally feel male gazing if not for the knowledge that this is from an entirely female camera and directing crew. The sexuality of these girls is exploited by themselves and each other and it is as spot-on to the high school experience as it is tough to watch at times.
Slow panning shots of foggy night skies and super closeups of glitter application create an environment that is as pretty as it is confusing. For those who have seen Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin you know the kind of psychological deep dive Abbott’s series takes you on. It’s a twisty, turny How To Get Away With Murder for the cheerleading set.
Addy Hanlon(Herizen Guardiola) and Beth Cassidy(Marlo Kelly) are small-town cheerleaders looking for a way out of their midwestern life. For Beth, that is the escapism of ironclad control over her squad, and for Addy, it is a cheerleading scholarship. Gaurdiola a Cuban-Jamaican singer, songwriter, actor vibrates with barely contained hope. There is nothing she wants more than to get out, get away, and get gone.
Kelly’s Beth sizzles with anger, disappointment, and want. She is a mean girl. The first episode quickly reveals her family life is less than ideal. Knowing why she is so unpleasant does nothing to make her more sympathetic though. It is a testament to Abbott and Kelly that unflinchingly shows the nastiness inside without relying on the tired trope of the bully with a heart.
The core three characters, Beth, Coach French, and Addy each have their own problems. Beth’s mother has checked out completely from parenting duties as she medicates herself with booze and pills. Her father left her mother for his side chick and his illegitimate daughter who happen to live across the street. That doesn’t stop him from coming over every now and again to take a walk down memory lane though. It’s a recipe for poor self-esteem, poor choices, and brutal hazing.
Addy doesn’t fare much better as she navigates a home life with a well-meaning but stagnant mother. Her mother has zero aspirations and as such doesn’t think Addy has a chance at anything bigger. Addy views Coach French’s arrival as a chance to succeed. She idolizes the young woman and thinks her life is proof her dreams are possible. When she witnesses her Coach’s indiscretion she must choose to protect her secret or side with Beth.
Coach French(Willa Fitzgerald) is a twenty-eight-year-old(gasp) desperate housewife. Fitzgerald plays her with icy indifference bordering on sociopathy. Her husband the criminally underused Rob Heaps(Imposters) is hardworking and kind. He is also naive and addled with mistrust. A job opportunity with Sutton Grove brings him and Collette to town.
In a transparent attempt to hold on to his charismatic wife he showers her with expensive gifts they can’t afford. Moving to Sutton’s Grove made a bad situation worse. Beth and Tacy’s father Bert played deliciously slimy by Paul Fitzgerald shines a harsh light on everything wrong with Collette and Matt’s relationship. There is a power inequity and he isn’t secure enough to deal.
She recklessly takes chances in between attempts at propping up his ego. By the end of the episode, it becomes very clear she isn’t as devoted to him as she appears. She’s a tough, successful, competitive woman and he is timid and full of self-doubt. She is a cheer coach, not his life coach. There is only so long you can pity the insecure guy. A late-night encounter with yummy Sarge Will Mosley(Zach Roerig) puts everything at risk and shifts the power dynamic between her and Beth. His haunted story waits to be told.
More set up than plot development, episode one of Dare Me was the prologue to what looks to be an anxiety-driven thriller. There will be no winners or losers in this look at High School elite. Who will have their blood splattered all over Addy’s hands is one of many mysteries waiting to be solved. A huge amount of world-building occurred in the amount of time it takes for a good double full to land.
Dare Me is about unfulfilled dreams and life regrets. Almost every person in this angst-ridden show is so full of self-loathing, wasted potential, and high school memories it is stifling. Even Addy the bright spot of the series is suffering from crushing doubt. Doubt from herself, her Mom, and her friends. There is no letting up on the drama. Even the cheer scenes which should be a fun interlude are filled with moody music. Just like most people’s high school experience, this series is too glittery, too ugly, too sad, and too excellent in equal measures. I wouldn’t want to go back to high school, but I sure don’t mind watching it on television when done right. Abbott brings all the pain and frustration of youth and packages it in a slick mystery.
There is a lot to like about Dare Me. If it can find an audience, fans will be drawn to the complex characters and realistic styling. The most successful part of the pilot was the sharp dialogue. In one of many expository dumps from Addy Hanlon, she quotes Coach Colette French(Willa Fitzgerald), “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”. If Abbott can keep the atmosphere from overtaking the action and boredom from setting in, USA will have a hit on their hands. Watch for our weekly coverage of Dare Me.
- The best line of the night goes to Coach French, “They are nothing but boxed wine and attitude”. Me too
- Who doesn’t deserve a good Jimmy Choo?
- I hate to sound like a Boomer but for fuck’s sake, there is so much drinking and driving. If teen spirit smells like anything it is poor decisions and gas station wine.
- Dylan Colton(Jordy Jones) is a young Penn Badgley and we need more of him!
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.