Seventeen minutes into the first episode of USA Network’s Dare Me, head cheerleader Beth Cassidy (Marlo Kelly) kicks one of her teammates in the stomach to help her throw up. It’s unclear in the moment why this girl is trying to purge—maybe it’s an eating disorder, maybe it’s the intense practice they just had—but regardless, Beth doesn’t think twice about the kick. It’s a cold, callous, cat-like reflex: a visual embodiment of the way she runs her squad. Most of the girls Beth cheers with are terrified of her, including her younger stepsister, Tacy (Alison Thornton), and best friend, Addy (Herizen Guardiola).
But all of this changes when a new coach, Collette (Willa Fitzgerald), takes over the team. In one fell swoop, she dismantles the captain system, promotes Tacy to top of the pyramid, and takes an active interest in Addy. Left on the outskirts is Beth, who was once the top dog. As you can imagine, this leads to heaps and heaps of tension—between Beth and Collette, Beth and Addy. Hell, Beth and everyone.
I don’t want to give too much else away. You’ll have to watch Dare Me for yourself to see what all the fuss is about. What I will say, though, is that the show is a near-perfect blend of Bring It On and Spring Breakers—supplying the biting cheer politics of the former and the vodka-swigging, bad-girl antics of the latter. Underneath the glossy, glittery sheen of her cheer uniform, Beth is, unsurprisingly, deeply troubled. She copes with her unstable home environment by excessively partying and berating the friends around her. Meanwhile, it’s clear Addy is growing tired of Beth’s wild-child antics and sees Collette’s mentorship as a way to better herself. There’s subterranean tension between the two friends that plays out in interesting—and, at times, explosive—ways.
The show—and the world of high school cheerleaders in general—is riveting. It’s a concept I explored back in September when Lifetime aired a string of movies about cheerleaders behaving badly. Dare Me is cut from the same cloth as those films and proves that our culture continues to be fascinated with the dark side of high school’s elite.
“Cheerleaders tend to be the cool people in school,” Meghan Hooper, Lifetime’s SVP of original movies, co-productions, and acquisitions, told Glamour earlier this year. “It’s just this weird cultural thing we have. I think a lot of people weren’t necessarily part of that or resented it or maybe didn’t even care about it. But there’s something fun, I think, in watching this comeuppance about it. It’s a little bit of the perfect people being knocked down. It’s like Mean Girls—people have a really fun time going along with that ride.”
There is one major difference between Dare Me and Lifetime’s cheerleader fare, though. The latter is meant to be fun, campy, and over-the-top; however, there’s real nuance in Dare Me. Beth isn’t a mad-with-power Queen Bee who would make one of her teammates walk blindfold on the edge of a building just because she can. (No joke: That was a plot point in one of the Lifetime movies.) Rather, she’s a three-dimensional human being whose choices are fully understandable (or at least comprehendible). Dare Me, at its core, is an exploration in why some girls turn into mean girls. And those reasons, more often or not, aren’t funny or shallow—like Cady Heron crushing on Regina George’s ex, Aaron Samuels. It’s usually messy, muddled, and sad. I think, on some level, we know this—hurt people, hurt people—but it’s nice to have a reminder.
Don’t get me wrong, Dare Me is deliriously fun. It’s chock-full of quippy one-liners, dumb, hunky guys, and neon-soaked cityscapes. But underneath all the pom-pom chanting is some real, palpable tragedy. So buckle up, my friends. Big Red has nothing on these girls.
Dare Me premieres Sunday, December 29 at 10 P.M. ET on USA Network.
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