Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Taveeta Szymanowicz (left) and Herizen Guardiola
Taveeta Szymanowicz (left) and Herizen Guardiola
Photo: Rafy (USA Network)
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USA’s new original series Dare Me will inevitably be compared to HBO’s Euphoria. In this adaptation of Megan Abbott’s novel of the same name, teens escape the doldrums of small-town life by drinking, doing drugs, and smearing glitter on their faces—a thick layer of glitz that contrasts an otherwise dark and dangerous world. There are some surface-level similarities, almost all of them merely aesthetic. But shoving Dare Me into a Euphoria comparison is a disservice to the show, which is doing something very different from the Zendaya vehicle. This is a much more tightly executed story about the hazards of bored teens and bad adults.

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It’d be more accurate to compare the twists and turns that await Dare Me’s high schoolers to something like the 2009 film Cracks—or Gone Girl, or even Heavenly Creatures and Black Swan. There’s a bit of a “Friday Night Lights, but make it cheerleading” thing going on, too, though this is a much grimier and more sensationalized look at the entwining of local politics and high-school sports, and the ways that pressure on the field seep into these kids’ lives (and vice versa).

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But make no mistake: This isn’t a small-town drama or a teen soap, though there are elements of both. Dare Me is a slow-burn psychological thriller, warranting comparisons to twisted movies about desire, relationships between women that straddle toxicity and passion, and poisonous power dynamics. When it comes to its suspense, Dare Me exercises immense control. It withholds just long enough to simmer the tension and then lunges forth.

The show centers on Addy (Herizen Guardiola), who sets the themes of Dare Me with episode-bookending narration. She’s hungry for cheer dominance, because she’s desperate to get out of her hometown. She’s first seen shoplifting malt liquor from a convenience store with her best friend Beth (Marlo Kelly), the fiery daughter of a rich-dick developer in town who left Beth and her pill-popping mother for his mistress.

Addy and Beth have a complicated relationship from the start, obsessive and full of extreme contradictions: In turns, they bring out both the best and worst in each other. Throughout the pilot, they look at each other in a way that could be interpreted as lust or hate. Those glances and a clipped but foreboding cold-open flash forward are the first suggestions that horror lies just beneath the surface of Dare Me, waiting. There’s a sense throughout the series that Addy and Beth are on the precipice of either kissing or throttling each other, a suspense mirrored in the show’s cheerleading choreography: Every time someone dismounts from the top of a pyramid, it’s unclear if they will be caught or crash. Addy and Beath have an incredibly difficult dynamic to capture without seeming overwrought, and yet Dare Me does so masterfully.

Willa Fitzgerald
Willa Fitzgerald
Photo: Rafy (USA Network)
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That dynamic escalates upon the arrival of new coach Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald), who vows to take the girls to regionals, states, and beyond. Addy takes an interest in Coach French, which sends Beth spiraling. More disturbingly, Coach French reciprocates: Suddenly, she’s inappropriately over-sharing about the problems in her marriage, turning Addy into a co-conspirator in her affair with one of the military recruiters who hangs around the school, opening up to Addy in a way that makes the young girl believe they are friends. But when Addy and Beth show up on the coach’s doorstep in a true moment of need, she tries to shut the door on them.

It’s all classically predatory behavior: the grooming, the false friendship, the attempts to make Addy feel like she is special and different from the others, and the pressure on Addy to distance herself from Beth. Coach French is a particularly insidious predator, because no one suspects her of being one. She’s young, pretty, blonde, a woman. Like Amy Dunne, she could get away with murder if she wanted. It evokes touches of Alissa Nutting’s brilliant and deranged novel Tampa, which similarly features a conventionally attractive predator who makes her young student feel special as she preys on him. Like Cracks, there’s an all-consuming triangle involving a coach and her pupils. Like Heavenly Creatures, the central friendship is simultaneously intoxicating and mystifying and, eventually, steeped in violence.

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Dare Me exercises restraint in its depictions of that violence. It’s often indulgent in its music video-esque cinematography (Steph Green, late of L Word: Generation Q and Watchmen, directs the pilot), though not in a way that distracts from the story it’s telling. But the show is thoughtful in the way it captures the different traumas that Addy and Beth experience, focusing sharply on their physical and emotional responses to those horrors. A standout episode depicts the same day from three separate perspectives—first Addy’s, then Coach French’s, followed by Beth’s—touching on a sexual assault without showing it but still unearthing devastating, terrifying, visceral emotions. The episode’s use and exploration of memory singes.

Herizen Guardiola and Marlo Kelly
Herizen Guardiola and Marlo Kelly
Photo: Rafy (USA Network)
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In other areas, Dare Me is less reined-in. Only some of Addy’s voiceovers hit; others are too broad of clichés to add much. There are moments that evoke Euphoria in the sense that they feel like adults trying to write edgy teen dialogue. Some of it teeters and tips into stupid territory: an allusion to “that summer we all tried cutting,” or anytime Beth has a zinger that sounds a little too locked-and-loaded. In some of these pithy grabs at dark comedic relief, Beth slips into the stock characterization of a bad girl who has been fucked up by her parents, but then subsequent scenes snap her back into sharper focus.

The acting is strong throughout, especially when it comes to Guardiola and Kelly, who do make these characters feel like real teens most of the time (even when the script works against the latter). A relative newcomer, Kelly is a knockout, and Beth’s monologues to Addy are some of the best moments on the show.

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Fitzgerald is a bit harder to pin down as the mysterious Coach French. She’s a tricky character; she has shades of Gone Girl’s protagonist to her but also shades of Thomas Leroy, the oppressive ballet director in Black Swan. Like Thomas, Coach French intentionally eradicates boundaries between the personal and the professional. Her advice to Addy ranges from opening up her chest before a back tuck to the strange and seductive adage, “love is a kind of killing.”

Coach French’s hazy motives shouldn’t be read as lazy writing, though; the show sets us in Addy’s POV, and Addy has no clue who her coach is or what she wants. Coach French’s shadowy behavior makes her dangerous, and much of the psychological thrill of the series hinges on trying to figure out what she’s after and why she uses the girls the ways she does. Love is a kind of killing, Addy repeats in one chapter, haunting words that get at the core of the series, which mixes desire, hunger, control, and betrayal into an intoxicating poison.

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