Friday, December 27, 2019

TV REVIEW: USA's 'Dare Me'

USA will debut its new original drama series Dare Me on Sunday, December 29 at 10/9c. The drama stars Willa Fitzgerald, Herizen Guardiola, Marlo Kelly, Paul Fitzgerald, Zach Roerig, Rob Heaps and Alison Thornton.

Read on for my thoughts on the cheerleading drama after screening its entire 10-episode season.

At first glance, USA's new drama Dare Me could be described as a combination of Euphoria (with its intense focus and horror at the sexy and drunken adventures of teenagers) and Friday Night Lights (with the exploration of how a high school sports team invigorates an entire community). However, it's much more complex and nuanced than that comparison would naturally suggestion. It has its own ambitions. It analyzes the power and seduction of female friendships. It explores the mounting pressure of wanting to please a mentor figure who mines emotional depth to compromise various individuals into doing things they shouldn't be comfortable doing. In fact, it's fundamentally about the nature of reality and how the crumbling economic state of one community can place huge stakes on the success of one individual no matter how crippling that pressure can ultimately become. It's a drama that plays with perception and perspective. The standout episode from the first season happens halfway through with a look at a potential sexual assault through the unique perspectives of three women involved. The drama has respect and admiration for the physical prowess of its main characters. It centers on a high school cheerleading squad with the aspirations of going all the way to the state championships. In doing so, their success could bring more opportunities to their fledgling small town that has seen many businesses and potential projects fail over the last few years. But the drama also has such contempt with the way people live their lives in service of others. It fundamentally understands the value that comes from human connection. It's necessary to have a healthy emotional life. But it can be so tragic and toxic as well because it can slowly manipulate people over time until they are standing in a stark reality having no clue what to do moving forward. It's a brilliant crescendo exploring human existence that pushes boundaries in the hopes of having a frank discussion on power and personal responsibilities.

The narrative is framed around two best friends on the cheer squad - Addy (Herizen Guardiola) and Beth (Marlo Kelly). Their lives change significantly when their school hires Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald) as the new cheer coach. She has the proven track record of turning around squads and sending them all the way to the championships. And yes, she immediately shows up at practice with a firm work ethic and the need to shake up the status quo. Of course, Addy and Beth have been on top of the power structure at this school for awhile. Beth is a skilled tumbler always given knockout moments despite always being seen as the loyal right-hand woman to her best friend. Meanwhile, Beth is the commanding cheer captain who rules with an iron fist and the resolve to break people for the sheer fun of it all. This friendship will absolutely make viewers furious with concerns. It's startling to see the frequency with which they are willing to destroy each other and then promptly return to loving each other. So much is communicated through nonverbal clues. The action slows things down so that the audience can see everything that happens during a cheer routine. It's all about the glances shared that communicate whether or not a person has the strength and resolve to support the trick on display. Beth is used to being at the top of the pyramid. She has that standout role and is proud to display it. In fact, that has effectively made her a bully. It's difficult to sympathize with her in the early going. She feels like a typical bad girl trope acting out because of a problematic home environment. However, there is so much going on within the performance and carefulness of the writing. She has dramatically different reactions to the world than anyone else. She doesn't buy into things the same way that others do. She indulges in abusive actions. But she also protects those she loves. It's furious because no one knows what to expect from her. That's how she likes it even though people are constantly finding ways to disappoint her. Meanwhile, Addy is fueled by the ambition to escape this town. Colette arrives and fills her head with platitudes that prove she has the skills to actually go far in the sport. That makes it chillingly effective when Colette conditions Addy to the point where she is willing to do whatever it takes to please her coach.

The season puts these characters under a fair amount of pressure. It is looking to see when they will break. Beth contributes to that notion. She too is fascinating by the world around her. That makes her mischievous and reckless. People quickly label her as wild and distracting. An immature personality that people should remove from their lives as quickly as possible. She is the bold and empowered character. It's a flashy performance in the hopes of saying something profound about white privilege. Instead, it's much more effective to watch as the season slowly teases the destruction of Addy and Beth's friendship in favor of Addy's growing connection with Colette. The narrative wants it to be known that any moment between these characters can turn either incredibly violent or extremely sexual. That's the emotional demands of this world. Reality throws people a lot of curve balls in their lives. They have to feel good about showing their ambition and going after what they want. But they need the emotional support from their peers as well. This school is an unsafe environment prone to tons of bullying. That extends off campus too with the near constant drinking, sex and partying. It's startling and criminal to watch. Colette is a young adult. She is in the position of power which comes with natural responsibilities. She wants to view herself as a member of the squad and a friend to those who need her right now. That can be a disservice to her family at home. She may not be able to rely on them as much as she should. Or she could just be following a pattern of abuse where she too is bringing in these teenagers just to destroy their lives. It's a captivating core premise. No answers will come easy. In fact, it remains fluid just how quick the world can change. Perceptions inform the audience about what to expect. Even those can rapidly evolve. Some information will be tested. Some will remain resolute. The nature of reality is one of isolation. That's the dire point the show tries to make. That just comes with tragic consequences that also reveal the inability to cope with the darkness of the world. These characters think they have things figured out. To the surprise of no one, the season proves over and over again that that isn't true and they are in for a rude awakening of what can actually become of them. That makes a truly captivating drama to watch across 10 episodes.