Paramount Network Works Past ‘Heathers’ Headache

WHY THIS MATTERS: Networks are challenged to balance edgy content amidst the many instances of gun violence in the country.

Heathers, a dark comedy series based on the 1988 film of the same name, will debut on Paramount Network Oct. 25, ending the most tortuous route to a premiere for any show in recent memory. The series was initially scheduled for a March 7 start, which was pushed back after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in mid- February, as Heathers depicts guns in a high school. The show was later canceled outright.

Paramount Network, which debuted in January in place of the former Spike TV, did not explain its decision to bring Heathers to air, and would not comment. The Viacom network will debut two episodes Oct. 25 and new episodes premiere through Oct. 29. The final two episodes were combined into one, with controversial content cut, bringing the total to nine.

“Obviously, I wish fans could see the tenth episode, but the producers and I felt strongly about not changing anything in it,” showrunner Jason Micaleff said in a statement.

Paramount Network will also stream the series on its app and website starting Oct. 22. The dark humor of Heathers is a good fit for Halloween season, goes the thinking at the network.

Without explaining its actions, many are left to guess how Paramount Network shifted from scrapping the show to sharing it with viewers.

“Having a bunch of unaired shows that have been paid for is a liability no programmer wants,” Dom Caristi, telecommunications professor at Ball State University, said. “The danger of airing a show with content related to a school shooting is that a programmer never wants to appear insensitive … [Paramount Network] may feel that it’s been a sufficient amount of time since the last school shooting that they won’t appear uncaring.”

Project Passed Around

The stop-and-start route to premiere for Heathers predates its time at Paramount Network. Jenny Bicks sold a Heathers series to Fox in 2009 that never made it to air. Bicks then got a green light at Bravo for an hour-long Heathers drama, but that, too, was scrapped.

In January 2017, Viacom sibling TV Land ordered Heathers to series. Keith Cox, president of development and original programming at Paramount Network, TV Land and CMT, called it a “cinematic, surprising and twisted comedy” that both nods to the film that spawned it, and creates something unique.

Heathers, about a cruel clique of students named Heather, then relocated to Paramount Network. The network described it as “a satirical comedy that takes creative risks in dealing with many of society’s most challenging subjects, ranging from personal identity to race and socio-economic status to gun violence.”

The cast includes Grace Victoria Cox, James Scully, Melanie Field, Brendan Scannell and Jasmine Mathews. Shannen Doherty, who starred in the movie, is a guest star. Along with creator Micaleff, Leslye Headland is an executive producer and directed several episodes, and Gary Lucchesi is executive producer for Lakeshore Entertainment.

Paramount Network debuted Jan. 18 and its original series have been a mixed bag. Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner as the head of a massive cattle ranch in constant battle with its neighbors, debuted to 4.8 million viewers, and earned a second season. Drama American Woman was canceled after its first season.

Younger, which had five seasons on TV Land, is shifting to Paramount Network. The network also ordered drama Emily in Paris from Darren Star, Younger’s creator.

When Paramount Network delayed the start of Heathers following the Parkland shooting, the network said the show would begin “later this year.” A shooting that killed 10 in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, in May likely weighed into the network’s decision to cancel Heathers in June.

Network brass then planned to sell the series to another network. With season two written, Paramount Network pitched it as a two-season anthology package. Keith Cox told The Hollywood Reporter that those pitched included SVOD networks, premium cable and perhaps a broadcast network.

None bit.

“They clearly hoped that a streaming service would be willing to acquire it, hence the lengthy wait to make this call,” Old Dominion University assistant professor of communication Myles McNutt said. “But that never materialized.”

Heathers reviews were not kind. “Paramount Network’s TV version of Heathers lacks the movie’s wit and wastes time with a boring pair of leads,” said Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter.

McNutt said it wasn’t much of a risk for Paramount to finally bring Heathers to air. “Any presumed harm of the series,” he said, “will be limited by the fact that almost no one is likely to tune in.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.