A dark psychological thriller about competitive cheerleading sounds like the sort of show that, by all rights, should be an instant hit. Sadly, that was not the case for the USA Network drama Dare Me, a one-season wonder that mixed smart genre deconstruction with guilty pleasure trashiness to create one of the best series you probably didn’t watch in 2020 — but is now streaming on Netflix.
Based on the book of the same name by Megan Abbott, Dare Me is a dark coming-of-age tale about friendship, obsession, competition, and buried secrets, with a heaping dose of suffocating anxiety and possible murder thrown on top. Set in a dying Rust Belt town, the series follows the dramatic saga of the Sutton Grove High School cheerleading squad, and in doing so, reimagines many elements of the traditionally male noir mystery through a distinctly feminine lens.
The series centers on team captain Beth Cassidy (Marlo Kelly) and her loyal lieutenant Addy Hanlon (Herizen Guardiola), two best friends with the sort of complicated, messy relationship that so often exists between young women — a potent mix of love, obsession, and jealousy that can only spring up between people who spend most of their waking hours together. When new cheerleading coach Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald) is recruited to turn the squad into regional champions, everything changes – not just for Addy and Beth’s relationship, but for the team and even the town itself.
The squad has long been more successful competitively than the football team they support, and the multiple scenes of punishing physical acrobatics prove it. Yet these girls are the ones who seem forever trapped – in a town that objectifies them, in a society that validates male excess while villainizing female ambition, and in lives that feel like they’re going nowhere fast. (At least the guys have the option of the ever-present table of army recruiters at school.) Visually, Sutton Grove is full of run-down factories, empty apartment complexes, and unfinished land-use projects, a depressed and depressing place that has little to offer these bright young women except toxic relationships and the memory of the nights the stadium lights once shined bright for them.
There’s a hopeless element to the girls’ rampant enthusiasm for booze, drugs, and meaningless hook-ups, which is part of the reason the prospect of regionals is so enticing. For them, cheer is not just a potential way out of a dead-end town with few options, but it represents an opportunity to stand out – to matter – in a way they have few opportunities to do in their everyday lives. Addy’s near-immediate infatuation with Coach French is simultaneously driven by her desire to land a college cheer scholarship, and her need to be seen — both as herself, and as a person separate and apart from Beth’s domineering shadow.
As for the Sutton Grove HBIC herself, Kelly does some incredibly layered work as Beth, who is both fierce and damaged, predatory and protective at any given moment. Her bruises — both physical and psychological — are the result of a life spent both trying to be the best and being constantly told that her best will never be good enough. No wonder she clashes with Fitzgerald’s icy, brittle Collette, who is old enough to know better but young enough to still remember the rush that comes along with being “top girl” in a town like this. Neither are particularly willing to share the spotlight or, as it turns out, the admiration of Guardiola’s Addy.
The twisted relationship dynamics that develop between these three women make for compelling – if slightly implausible – television, as the complicated personal life of Coach French begins to seep into and ultimately take over Addy’s, while Beth tries to draw her wandering friend back to her side. Whether the younger girl’s fascination with Collette is a dangerous obsession or a sign that Addy’s breaking free from a harmful relationship with her domineering BFF is a question the show ultimately allows viewers grapple with for the duration of its run, much the same way it allows them to form their own opinions about Coach French herself long before revealing any hints at her true nature.
In general, Dare Me offers a remarkably frank, fresh take on the world of teenage girls, more grounded than the glittery dreamscape of HBO’s Euphoria and much grittier than shows like The CW’s Riverdale or Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars. It is ferocious, desperate, and emotionally complex by turns, and there are multiple moments in which the show leaves us unsure of who, exactly, we’re meant to be rooting for. Or if we’re even meant to even be rooting for anyone at all. And that’s part of what makes it so delicious to watch. Well, that and its frequently outrageous plot.
If anything, the show is built from similar DNA as You, another dark psychological thriller with wild plot twists that found a second life on Netflix after its original premiere on Lifetme. If there’s any justice in the streaming world, Dare Me will earn another look from viewers who skipped it when it was originally broadcast – this drama was always a poor fit for the USA Network, generally the home of procedural fare or blue-sky dramas, with the occasional outlier like Mr. Robot thrown in for added edginess. And its propulsive narrative and complex character dynamics make for ideal binge watching, a viewing method that helps paper over some of the cracks that emerge in its story if you think about it too hard.
Sure, are there moments here that will certainly give you pause, or cause you to wonder just how on earth a real person could ever behave the way some of the adults in this town regularly do. But those questions are drowned out by the series’ almost suffocating sense of tension, which causes every conversation and tumbling pass to like a threat – of violence, of harm, of truth. And, then, of course, there is the lurking shadow of the dark incident hinted at in the show’s opening moments – the specifics of which are not revealed in any great detail until well into the season – which helps create an overall atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety. Questions of who is marked for harm and who might do the harming build until it can all only snap and collapse. (Much the way the squad’s pyramid does during one key scene.)
There’s truly so much to enjoy about Dare Me and its characters that one can only hope more viewers discover it upon its arrival on streaming this month. If there is space for Joe Goldberg on our screens, surely, we owe the far more complex and interesting duo of Beth Cassidy and Collette French a spot right next to him. Eyes on your girl, and all that.
Dare Me is streaming now on Netflix.
A handful of Jokers, two Lex Luthors, one Doomsday, and a whole lot more.
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