Midway through Dare Me, a new USA drama set in the world of high school cheerleading, we see local cheer coach Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald) watching the classic Forties film noir Double Indemnity, based on the novel by James M. Cain. The scene is less interested in revealing something about the enigmatic Colette than it is in winking at the influences of Megan Abbott, who adapted her own novel for television. Abbott’s specialty has long been recreating the grimy, hopeless, and traditionally male experience of noir in unapologetically female contexts. Her other recent books include You Will Know Me, about teen gymnasts training for Olympic glory, and Give Me Your Hand, about scientists exploring cures for an extreme form of PMS; both settings inevitably lead to bloodshed, as happens in Dare Me. More than once, I’ve read an Abbott book and thought, “If James M. Cain had been a teenage girl, he’d have written this.”
That feeling is palpable throughout Dare Me. We’re in a small Midwestern town where the cheerleaders have long been more successful than the football players they support. Local hellion Beth (Marlo Kelly) is entrenched as the squad’s “top girl,” with backing from loyal (and mostly kinder) best friend Addy (Herizen Guardiola). Colette has been recruited by Beth’s estranged father Bert (Paul Fitzgerald) to turn the squad into champs, and she’ll upset anyone in her path — Beth most of all — to achieve that goal. It’s a ruthless world — at her first practice, Colette grabs hold of one of the girls’ ever-so-slightly doughy midsections and says, coldly, “Fix this. We don’t do this.” — where heartbreak and other forms of injury seem like the inevitable cost for all.
Each episode begins with ominous narration from Addy promising a heinous crime in her future. “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” she intones at the start of the premiere. But Abbott and her TV collaborators are much more interested in atmosphere than plot. The latter takes a very long time to materialize, though the former becomes so intoxicating that the long wait begins to feel besides the point. Yes, there’s law-breaking on the way, but the series’ greatest strength is how it captures the many forms of emotional violence made possible in this world, both among the girls and between them and the intensely flawed adults around them. (Addy’s cop mother Faith, played by Amanda Brugel, is basically the only parent or authority figure to seem stable or wise.)
There’s a casual brutality to how everyone interacts — “She made her point with the fetus,” one girl complains of Colette’s attempt to promote Beth’s spoiled, younger half-sister Tacy (Alison Thornton). “Can’t she just abort now?” — that’s both startling and invigorating, like being plunged into an ice bath. (Beth and Tacy wind up side-by-side in two such tubs during an endurance challenge that’s really just a form of hazing.) It would feel like a throwback to the cinematic era of tough-talking dames even if the girls didn’t toss around words like “lurid” or nonchalantly drop Jayne Mansfield references.
But Dare Me is also keenly aware of the physical pains of this world: all the bruises and scars the girls carry from their intense workouts, and how even the heavy coat of makeup they wear on game nights can only conceal so much. There’s something eerily tactile about the world, as if it were being broadcast in 3-D with Smell-O-Vision. And in conveying the physical toll, Abbott and company neatly get across how the flood of endorphins and other hormones, plus the high stakes of competition (along with the shenanigans going on between games), can create blurred emotional lines, too. Beth despises the new coach, while Addy adores her; it plays out like a love triangle, even though not everyone is interested in one another in that way(*). The outstanding fifth episode is a Rashomon-esque triptych where we see the same day first from Addy’s perspective, then Colette’s, then Beth’s; you’ll enter it thinking you know whom to root for and against, and exit with your feelings flipped upside down.
(*) Fitzgerald’s in her late twenties but youthful-looking enough that she was playing a teenager on MTV’s Scream only a few years ago. In the first episode, Beth mocks Colette behind her back for being old — “She’s 28! She’s ancient!” — but Dare Me seems acutely aware that the coach isn’t that far removed from the same experiences Beth, Addy, and the others are going through, which only intensifies the emotions among the core trio.
The series definitely suffers from acute 10-Hour Movie-itis. What there is of a plot —including Beth’s struggle to remain top girl, the unnerving presence of the school’s handsome in-house Marine recruiter Sarge Will (Zach Roerig), and the precarious state of Colette’s marriage(*) to Matt (Rob Heaps) — unfolds very, very slowly, suggesting the show would have done better with either a shorter season or as a miniseries. (Dare Me is one of the Abbott books I haven’t read, so I have no idea how much story is left following the events of the finale. It didn’t feel like enough to fill a comparable second season, though.)
(*) The show comes from Peter Berg’s production company, which provides a spiritual link to Friday Night Lights. Dare Me is a much nastier show than FNL, with no feel-good moments to speak of. But it’s funny to see Berg’s name in the credits and then hear the girls on the cheerleading squad derisively refer to Matt as “Mr. Coach.”
Still, great atmosphere and lived-in performances (especially from Kelly and Guardiola) carry this show a hell of a way farther down the field than a lot of recent dramatic slogs with similarly unbalanced story-to-episode ratios. It’s a really rotten place to visit, but in a way that gave me the same kind of visceral thrills I’m used to getting from more old-fashioned suspense tales about middle-aged men in fedoras and trench coats.
At one point, Colette suggests of Beth and the other girls, “That age — all that beauty, all that longing — it is so easy to find yourself in dark places.” Dare Me takes things to some very dark places indeed. Enjoy being there for as long as you can stand it.
Dare Me debuts December 29th on USA. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.