The Heathers TV Anthology Switches Format, Stays Problematic, as It’s Ordered to Series

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TV Land’s Heathers has been ordered to series, and in the process, it’s changed format. Reportedly pitched as a single-camera half-hour comedy, it’s now an hour-long show with a “considerably darker tone.” I’m curious what this change might signify for the series’ treatment of its protagonists, which has thus far been…worrying.

The series’ pitch, first described back in March, manages to dead-name and question the gender identity of its genderqueer protagonist.

“This time the outcasts have become high school royalty. Heather McNamara (originally played by Lisanne Falk) is a black lesbian and will be portrayed by Jasmine Mathews; Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is a male who identifies as gender-queer whose real name is Heath (Brendan Scannell); and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) has a body like Martha Dumptruck and will be played by Melanie Field.”

That description of Heather Duke is full of red flags, from the phrase “a male who identifies as…” to the term “real name.” Initially, we weren’t sure if that phrasing came from The Hollywood Reporter or TV Land, but given that it’s now being repeated in multiple outlets, it looks like TV Land at the very least doesn’t see anything wrong with it. I’d have hoped that a show featuring a genderqueer protagonist might do some basic research, but that description suggests they didn’t take the time.

In addition, Keith Cox, the president of production and development at TV Land, said, “Our take on Heathers is a cinematic, surprising and twisted comedy that gives a wonderful nod to the film while also creating something entirely its own. We’re really passionate about this show and the satirical story-telling its provocative characters allow.” Most of that description sounds intriguing, but when I hear a studio executive describe the inclusion of marginalized characters as “provocative,” I always worry that they really mean “exploitative.”

I genuinely hope I’m wrong about Heathers, because there are parts of this that sound great. I’d love to see more nuanced, darkly comic queer characters, particularly queer characters of color. I also love the idea of inverting the ’80s social hierarchy to reflect modern standards of “coolness”–something that films like 21 Jump Street have played with rather brilliantly. I’d love to escape from network TV’s body fascism.

However, this summary isn’t helping to get my hopes up. Plus, by inverting the hero-villain dynamic this way, Heathers runs the risk of becoming a story about innocent heteronormative teens being hounded by evil queers, which…let’s just avoid that.

In short, it’s encouraging that TV Land seems excited enough about this series to make it their first hour-long show. It’s great to see a network investing in what looks like a very queer show, and giving it enough room to breathe and explore more complicated stories than a half-hour format would allow. I just worry that they’re approaching these characters as sensationalist props instead of respecting the very real people they represent.

What do you think? Does that format change make you more optimistic, or is the writeup still too much of a red flag?

(Via The Hollywood Reporter, image via New World Pictures)

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