Television

Mean Girl Cheerleaders and Outlandish Sheriffs Ring in the New Year of Television

Dare Me and Deputy both have their flaws and their charms.

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  • Dare Me. USA. Sunday, December 29, 10 p.m.
  • Deputy. Fox. Thursday, January 2, 9 p.m.

It may sound like a marketing slogan for The CW, but the aphorism that "There's something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls" actually comes from a different network. It's spoken by the narrator of Dare Me, USA's new cheerleader noir. (How's that for a phrase you never thought you'd hear?) And whatever else you may think about Dare Me, it certainly lives up to the narration.

At their best, the mean girlz of Dare Me are snotty, jealous, bullying, and predatory. At their worst—well, they're much worse. The first episode opens with a creepy, underlit scene in which one of the characters gropes for an object that, when she comes up with it, turns out to be a blood-smeared cell phone. Who it belongs to, what happened to her (or, maybe, him) and why are the mystery that slowly (much too slowly, many are likely to feel) unfurls over the next 10 hours.

Dare Me is based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Megan Abbott, about a dying rust belt town where the boys dream about joining the army as a ticket out and the girls pass time shoplifting tampons and getting fingerbanged by football players. About the only thing that still works is the cheerleading squad, upon which the town elders are depending to put them back on the map. They've hired a new, highly regarded coach and even plan to build a new stadium to showcase not the football team ("got the shit beat out of it again," one of the boosters notes dismissively at a strategy meeting) but the cheerleaders.

But the arrival of the new coach Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald, Goldfinch) creates a series of interlocking triangular relationships, all of them seething in ambition and sexuality, including smoky hints of repressed homosexuality. The primary one is between the coach and her top two cheerleaders: French clashes immediately with the squad's spiteful captain Beth (Australian TV actress Marlo Kelly) and Beth's loyal lieutenant Addy (Herizen GuardiolaThe Get Down). And when Beth gets demoted, she starts spying on French, looking for means to wreak revenge.

That search seems likely to be fruitful. For one thing, French is not exactly a plucky, uplifting Ms. Keating out there. She seethes with contempt for her cheerleaders: "These girls are nothing but box wine and attitude." (To be fair, their parents do not exactly disagree. "Lazy, raised on Ritalin and free porn," says one scornful mom.) Her casually harsh comments about the girls' bodies drive at least one of them to bulimia. And then there's French's curiously passive relationship with her husband, seemingly devoid of any real passion, even though they're only in their 20s.

All these undercurrents swirl Dare Me into increasingly dark waters. Abbott, the novelist, is also on the writing staff of the show, and her acknowledged fascination with 1930s noir storytellers like James M. Cain shows throughout Dare Me. (Sometimes literally—in one scene, some of the characters are watching the film version of Cain's book Double Indemnity on TV.)

But that's not always to the show's benefit. Dare Me is long on atmosphere, short on plot, and distressingly overburdened with anachronistic dialogue. Do Generation Q cheerleaders really crack hard-bitten jokes about Jayne Mansfield? (Though Ames is not bad when she sticks to the right century. Beth to the vomiting bulimic girl: "You're got no gag reflex." Addy, demurring: "That's not what her boyfriend says.") For that matter, the whole premise of teenagers wallowing in malaise over being trapped in small towns seems like a relic of Depression-era America. Even in the dread, nameless little town of Dare Me, Kardashians and cat videos are only a click away.

There are also thick whiffs of anachronism drifting through Fox's new cop drama Deputy. Stephen Dorff (True Detective) plays a sixth-generation Los Angeles sheriff's deputy named Bill Hollister who believes the job should still be done as it was in the days when his great-great-great grandfather was gunned down by bandits on Sunset Boulevard when it was still a cattle trail. Literally: In one scene, he lassos a getaway SVU and throws it off a freeway overpass; in another, he and his men charge a narcotrafficker hideout on horseback, guns blazing as if he were the Lone Ranger in pursuit of Butch Cavendish.

Fortunately, most of the literal manifestations of the Marshal-Dillon-had-it-right leitmotif fade away, but Deputy is still a kind of a non-redneck Walking Tall. Hollister, a sergeant barely clinging to his job for what his supervisors call "his history of recalcitrance, insubordination and disregard for the chain of command"—most recently, he tipped off the Mexican-American community about an upcoming ICE roundup of undocumented workers—gets flukily and temporarily elevated to sheriff by an archaic succession law. He promptly announces that the reign of bureaucratic terror over the cops is at an end: "This department has lost its way….Too many save-asses and not enough ass-kickers."

What follows is an orgy of politically correct populist rage. Hollister blows away much of L.A. County's narcotrafficker population and continues sabotaging ICE operations. But he also scuttles a plan to get cops with a tendency to overuse physical force off the streets. Whether the contradictory themes are part of a conscious attempt by the producers (Will Beall and David Ayer, both veterans of the Training Day family of movies and TV shows) to illustrate the dangers of mixing Nietzsche with cops, or just a cynical attempt to persuade liberals that mindless violence can still be fun, remains unclear.

Putting aside Deputy's peculiar politics and red-meat aesthetic, though, it has undeniable appeal. The intricately staged shootouts and car chases are gleefully frequent, the dialogue crackling, (how are you not going to love a drag-queen informant who declares that Xanadu is "the Citizen Kane of roller-skate rock operas"?) and the characters, including Dorff's, are surprisingly nuanced. Among the most interesting is a lippy, 105-pound female deputy (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Arrow) who's been assigned—very much against his will—to Hollister as his driver and bodyguard. A former Pentagon aide, she turns out to have a much better grasp of the sheriff's department's politics than does Hollister himself. "Scowlers you can trust," she advises him. "Smilers, you gotta worry about." Said with a scowl.

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  1. And this is why I read books. Real, dead tree books.

    1. Give us your quick capsule review of the book Dare Me. Compare and contrast with the TV show review here.

  2. “”Scowlers you can trust,” she advises him. “Smilers, you gotta worry about.””

    So, you could almost say that one can smile and smile and be a villain?

      1. Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

  3. I suppose there are creepier things than “cheerleader noir,” but I really don’t want to think about them right now.

  4. “Whether the contradictory themes are part of a conscious attempt by the producers…to illustrate the dangers of mixing Nietzsche with cops, or just a cynical attempt to persuade liberals that mindless violence can still be fun, remains unclear.”

    Hey, “liberals” need a release for their repressed sadism, too. And I imagine they are aware, somewhere behind the rhetoric about cops being racists etc., there’s an underlying appreciation that there’s a need for aggressive, unscrupulous police to enforce all the lefty laws which might meet with resistance (which translates into a lot of laws).

  5. Do Generation Q cheerleaders really crack hard-bitten jokes about Jayne Mansfield?

    If Nick Gillespie was one of the writers the joke would be about Wendy O. Williams.

  6. Man I went to the lamest high school. All of our cheerleaders were really sweet and never tried to kill anybody.

    1. So you’re saying they covered up their crimes more effectively?

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