One of the first lines of USA’s new teen thriller Dare Me is “there’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.” That line both perfectly encapsulates and also vastly understates what is going on with the teenage girls on the show and teen girls out in the real world. It is in this way that Dare Me, despite being very different in tone and plot, is strongly reminiscent of hit Freeform drama Pretty Little Liars, which went off the air in June 2017.
So if you’re looking for something to fill that PLL-shaped hole in your heart, Dare Me is here to take a stab at it.
The show centers around a high school cheerleading squad whose wealthy booster parents want the squad to take things to the next level, so they hire a new coach, Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald), a hometown girl made good because she left this small blue-collar town and cheered for the University of Central Florida.
But like any good thriller, neither Coach French, nor the parents, nor the girls on the squad are what they seem at first glance. So underneath the glitter and the glamour of being the school’s “cheerlebrities” — to borrow a term used in Megan Abbott’s book of the same name on which the show is based — lie these teenage girls who show at once the complexities of being a teenage girl. They are simultaneously strong and vulnerable; they are fiercely loyal but also easily manipulated; they selfish and selfless; they are warrior athletes who sometimes hide behind the idea that cheerleaders are nothing more than pom-pom shaking rally girls.
This is where one half of the resemblance to Pretty Little Liars comes from — that show deftly explored the different roles teenage girls are forced to play and the consequences that come with them, even if it did so in a very fantastical way, while Dare Me is much more grounded in reality. But this idea of fierce warriors masquerading as pom-pom girls is something that Abbott said in a 2012 interview shaped the entire book.
“[G]irls train from a young age to take part in [cheerleading]. Shaping their bodies, taking tumbling and gymnastics classes, going to cheer camp,” said Abbott. “Their focus is tournaments, beating other squads. In many ways, it would be like expecting gymnasts to rally for football players. But our long-burnished image of the cheerleader as the peppy rally girl for her team persists. … The book sprang from a sense that these girls were, in many ways, like hardcore Marines, bad-ass warriors. Squads, after all, are martial by nature. And the book was framed around these captain and lieutenant characters. … I found myself riffing on famous military speeches (MacArthur, Patton) for Coach. It was a huge influence on the way I wrote the book. And one of its pleasures writing it; I really got to explore the power of military rhetoric.”
And that’s exactly what it does, as the arrival of Coach French upends the entire squad dynamic, including the tight friendship between main characters Addy (Herizen Guardiola) and Beth (Marlo Kelly). Enough praise cannot be heaped onto these three main women driving the action. They are all supremely good in their roles; Coach French is nostalgic for high school and stuck in a familial situation that feels a bit like a gilded cage; Beth is a broken, bitter girl whose only lifeline is Addy; and Addy gets stuck in the middle as she is caught up in Coach French supporting her big dreams of getting out of their smalltown on a cheerleading scholarship.
As the new power dynamics start to unfold, there is a lot of tension in the way the women are both at odds with one another, yet have the shared goal of taking their squad to regionals and possibly state. The cheerleading sequences are also one of the highlights of the show. The actresses are obviously doing a lot of their own stunts and tumbling, and the direction of the episodes is masterful. There are a lot of slow-motion shots of the cheer routine, but they aren’t filmed in a gratuitous or sexy way. They make these women look like the tough athletes that they are, not only showing off when they hit the stunt or tumbling pass but showing off every bruise, every wobble, every fall where someone “eats mat.” They show how hard these women work to perform these death-defying feats of athleticism.
Two of the first three episodes are directed by women — Steph Green and Lauren Wolkstein — and the other director is Jamie Travis, a man with some serious girl power TV cred, having directed multiple episodes of Faking It, The Bold Type, Scream, and Claws. These directors are definitely putting forth TV that is capturing and meant for the female gaze and the show is that much stronger for it, much like Pretty Little Liars and its female showrunner I. Marlene King did.
Then there’s the murder. That’s the other way in which Dare Me hearkens back to the poor, tortured girls of Rosewood, PA. Interspersed with all the competitiveness and teenage angst is some kind of violent death, which viewers are only teased about in the first few episodes. Obviously, the show is building toward solving this mystery, since the pilot opens with a frightened Addy driving her car with blood-soaked hands, then flashes back to three months earlier.
It’s a great setup; the only thing up in the air for book readers is that the book has a solid finality to it after things are wrapped up. Is the show intended to run for multiple seasons? USA is airing it in the U.S., but Netflix is distributing it to an international audience and one has to think that if it is successful, USA and Netflix would want more seasons. So it’ll be interesting to see if the season wraps things up in a way that does or does not leave the door open for more episodes.
Either way, the first season of Dare Me is definitely worth your time. It premieres Sunday, December 29 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA.
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