Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Clueless went to the head of the 1996 remakes class

Rachel Blanchard, Stacey Dash, and Elisa Donovan in Clueless (Photo: ABC Archives/Getty Images)

As a new version of an established property is ordered or green-lit on what now feels like a daily basis, it’s easy to look at today’s glut of reboots and revivals as a regrettable yet anomalous development. “Hollywood’s out of ideas.” “What’s old is new again—and probably of inferior quality.” But remakes are nearly as old as movies themselves.

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For example, Ben-Hur’s adaptation history began with Lew Wallace’s novel, which was followed by a play and a silent movie—all in “just” 50 years. The breadth of that time frame allowed for absence to make the audiences’ hearts grow fonder, or for the cultural zeitgeist to otherwise warrant revisiting these ideas. But contemporary studios can hardly be counted on to show that kind of restraint, which is how we find ourselves with the second Spider-Man reboot in four years on the horizon. And yet, even that tight schedule isn’t really anything new—in 1996, networks were tripping over themselves to expand on the ideas in popular movies from the year before. What was a little more surprising was the fact that the majority of these projects were adaptations of female-led films that had nothing to do with comic books or gritty crime stories.

In ’96, the fall TV roster was stacked with shows that featured ensembles and had established viewerships: Friends, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and NYPD Blue. New comedies 3rd Rock From The Sun, Spin City, and Everybody Loves Raymond were among the standout debuts of that year, and would all go on to enjoy long runs on network TV. The year also saw multiple film-to-TV adaptations, including a Jumanji animated series and a procedural riff on 1987’s The Big Easy. Within the matriculating remake ranks were three series that had a coming-of-age story for multiple demographics: Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, the remake of the film that started off as a TV pilot; Party Girl, Daisy Von Scherler Mayer’s own retelling of her indie film; and the hour-long drama of Dangerous Minds, in which ABC replaced Michelle Pfeiffer with Annie Potts.

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Rachel Blanchard and Stacey Dash in Clueless (Photo: ABC Archive/Getty Images)

These shows had more in common than just their celluloid origins and attractive white women in the lead roles. Their plots were all predicated on the series lead entering a new stage in her life, whether it was another year of high school, a first job, or a second career as an educator. They seemed to be aware of each other on some level, too, if the marketing is any indication (more on that later).

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But for all the broad strokes they might have shared, the series had far more differences. Clueless and Party Girl were both half-hour comedies aimed at the Clueless set, with the latter also hoping to draw in viewers dealing with post-graduation blues who hadn’t succumbed to the generational ennui depicted in Reality Bites two years prior. Dangerous Minds, on the other hand, was a drama comprising episodes that felt like a bunch of updated after-school specials. They also diverged considerably in quality, and the series with the youngest lead ended up being the best-executed offering (even though its charms were ultimately lost on ABC).

The first remake to make it to air was also the most abbreviated one. Fox premiered Daisy Von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl series on September 9, 1996, with Christine Taylor taking over for Parker Posey as the loopy bon vivant. Taylor had followed up her work on Hey Dude and various sitcom guest spots by stepping into another familiar pair of platform shoes as Marcia Brady in Paramount’s Brady Bunch movies. Taylor’s portrayal of the eldest Brady daughter—with her devotion to fashion and general air of confidence—was presumably what prompted studio execs to cast her. But although Taylor had certainly given a delightfully snide performance, Marcia’s borderline narcissistic tendencies in those films didn’t exactly mirror the original Mary’s more benign obliviousness—dare we say, cluelessness? Fox would not have said so, and in fact went to pains to distance their remake from the forthcoming Clueless series, while also challenging it.

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Fox’s points in the ad above fell under “protesting too much,” because this “new” Mary was kind of clever, but not very self-aware. The pilot introduced the film’s plot—Mary’s arrested for throwing rent fundraisers, and has to figure out a way to pay her bills and repay the loan from her godmother, Judy (Swoosie Kurtz, fresh off six seasons of Sisters). She grudgingly agrees to work at the library where Judy’s the head librarian, even though there’s no obvious reason to think she has any aptitude for it. But Mary quickly learns how delightful the Dewey decimal system is, and decides this is something she could take seriously.

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These beats were all covered in the 22-minute runtime of the pilot, thereby rendering the rest of the series superfluous. There was nothing compelling or new in the retelling, which could have been an entertaining watch as a proto-Sex And The City series about a well-shod single woman. Instead, Mary remained caught between adolescence and adulthood, with only the potential dullness of her work to signify her maturity. Producers Von Scherler Mayer, Efrem Seeger (later, of Queer As Folk), and Harry Birckmayer couldn’t make up their minds about just how much progress Mary was supposed to be making between episodes to take her from the irresponsible moniker after which the movie and show were titled to library card-carrying productive member of society. Party Girl didn’t even seem to have much fun during its depictions of social gatherings, and Fox canceled the show after four episodes.

ABC had not one but two remakes in its fall schedule that year, and both centered on high school students. There was Clueless, which writer-director Amy Heckerling had originally developed for Fox as a teen-oriented series. The other, Dangerous Minds, was brought forth by the 1995 film’s screenwriter Ronald Bass and Diane Frolov (Northern Exposure, Fantasy Island). Annie Potts boarded the series in the lead role of Louanne Johnson, the Marine turned teacher originally portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in John N. Smith’s adaptation of Johnson’s book.

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In the series, Johnson once again fought to reach the hearts and minds of her students, who were mostly Latinx and black youth. And, just as in the film, the details of her efforts were glossed over or otherwise distorted to fit an all-too-familiar Hollywood narrative of a white savior. Although Johnson didn’t decry the changes her story underwent from page to screen, she did note that the hostility Pfeiffer’s—and later, Potts’—character experienced from the students was wholly invented. Johnson admitted she encountered some resistance, but she tried to meet her young charges halfway, helping them to realize that they were already surrounded by culture, such as when she asked them to bring in their favorite rap or hip-hop lyrics and broke down the lyrical structure.

That kind of retooling is to be expected, to some extent, but Bass and Frolov sensationalized the tale even further in their series. Bass has said that the more saccharine moments from the film were the result of rewrites by Elaine May, but he and Frolov opted to sensationalize Johnson’s story in their series. Where movie-Louanne challenged the school administration’s notions of what made for acceptable, constructive interactions with her students by taking them to dinner and an amusement park, TV-Louanne took in a pregnant student, mowed lawns to help another, and held a fundraiser at a strip club.

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Dangerous Minds depiction of high school ended up more far-fetched than what viewers would see just a year later on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which did nothing to ameliorate the paternalistic undertones. Potts did what she could in the role, mixing some of the warmth from Designing Women with a no-nonsense attitude that suited her better than it did Pfeiffer. The drama faltered over its more incredulous aspects, and ABC called it quits after 17 episodes.

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the show derived from the movie with the most lasting appeal was also the victor of this unofficial adaptation competition. Clueless was and is an immensely quotable and re-watchable comedy—it’s a perfect, pastel-hued slice of the mid-’90s. Heckerling wrote and directed the film, which, thanks in part to its California-teen patois, quickly became the kind of pop-culture touchstone she’d previously scored with Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

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After the success of the film, Heckerling reverted to her original idea of crafting a TV series about a strong-willed if somewhat self-deluded teen doling out advice and bon mots. ABC snapped up the remake, and the sitcom debuted September 20, 1996, as a new member of the TGIF lineup, along with Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. Heckerling wasn’t the only film alum involved in the series—Stacey Dash, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan, Wallace Shawn, and Twink Caplan all reprised their roles. (Faison and Donovan would also appear in later seasons of Sabrina).

Alicia Silverstone had already moved on to the next phase of her Hollywood career and was filming Batman And Robin, so newcomer Rachel Blanchard was brought on to play Cher Horowitz. With much of the original cast in place, the structure remained the same: Besties Cher (Blanchard) and Dionne (Dash) took on high school together in coordinated outfits. The trio angle was scrapped, and Tai was effectively written out of the show, although Brittany Murphy did make a guest appearance as a different character. Cher’s stepbrother, Josh—played ever so charmingly by Paul Rudd in the film, but here portrayed by David Lascher—was no longer a romantic interest for the privileged teen. He was replaced by a string of suitors including Sonny, a leather jacket-wearing “rebel” played by Rudd in a guest spot.

The remake may have coasted a bit on the film’s goodwill, but overall, the travails of a high school student—even one so prepossessing and popular—made for enjoyable episodic TV. It wasn’t new terrain, but the performers were winsome. Dash and Blanchard had an easy chemistry, though Blanchard’s initial outsider status seemed to set the tone for their characters’ relationship. On the small screen, Cher was less self-assured and in need of guidance, which Dash-as-Dionne was happy to provide. The TV series came to rely on the group dynamic, even expanding Amber’s (Donovan) role as a frenemy.

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The adaptation didn’t have quite the same wit and bite as the film, but its cancellation was still a precipitous move by ABC. (The network regretted the decision when it saw how well the reruns performed.) Clueless quickly found a new home at the UPN, but Heckerling didn’t make the move to the fledgling network. She was replaced by Tim O’Donnell, who’d previously worked on Growing Pains, Dave’s World, and the regrettable Uncle Buck remake from 1990. And that marked the beginning of the end for the show. Even though the character of Josh had seemed extraneous in this new setting, he vanished from the show in the second season along with Shawn and Caplan, who played the married educators on whom Cher had worked her matchmaking magic. And Cher’s father, Mel, underwent another transformation, with Doug Sheehan replacing Michael Lerner.

The makeover didn’t sit well with viewers—the show saw a steep decline in viewership in its third season, and UPN pulled the plug in 1999 after 62 episodes. Clueless was probably never in any danger of being lost to the annals of pop culture, but offering fans a refresher course so soon after the release of the movie certainly didn’t hurt matters. And this sitcom chaser to the fizzy shot of the original film helped cement Clueless’ status as one of the best teen comedies ever.

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