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Reflections on USA's recently cancelled, criminally underrated Dare Me.


Thoughts on ‘Dare Me’ and Its Premature Cancellation

Reflections on USA’s recently cancelled, criminally underrated Dare Me.

Late last week, it was announced USA Network had cancelled Dare Me after a single season. Cancellations in 2020 have seemingly become more difficult decisions for networks than they were twenty years ago due to the across-the-board decrease in live viewing numbers and the incomprehensible, exponential growth in the number of scripted series available to the viewer. It is a consumer’s market in that sense; the viewer has more options of how and where to spend their time than that time could possibly allow.

Part of why Dare Me is just so damn good, though, is that it is—intentionally or otherwise—the spiritual successor to Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, another incredible adaptation that struggled to bring in the live viewers needed to keep it around longer.

So, when looking at how the first season of Suits (2011) pulled in around 4,000,000 viewers per episode for USA versus Dare Me’s 400,000, the 2020 television audience isn’t saying that Dare Me is less popular or less beloved; things are just different now—how and when people watch television, especially. Unfortunately, for cable networks like USA still trying to find the same kind of identity and establish the same kind of pedigree as an FX or AMC, advertisers (and their money) matter. They can risk greenlighting an unproven series, but they apparently can’t risk keeping it around.

Dare Me will end up being one of dozens of series from this year (only its pilot aired at the end of 2019; the other nine episodes of its first season aired in 2020) that will find their ways into the halls of the underrated and underappreciated, but it will certainly be a standout among them and one of the best series of the year come December (its high position on our list-in-progress is no surprise). Co-created by Megan Abbott and Gina Fattore (and adapted from Abbott’s novel of the same name), Dare Me follows mainly three characters in a small, poorly funded high school and town in the Midwest—two of its best cheerleaders and their new coach.

Part of why the series is just so damn good, though, is that it is—intentionally or otherwise—the spiritual successor to Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (2013-15), another incredible adaptation that struggled to bring in the live viewers needed to keep it around longer. Both series operate in familiar genres (crime procedural and high school drama) but become much less interested in their premises than in their presentations and their themes expressed through their main characters. If Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter are destined to be inescapable, incompatible lovers (non-sexual, though the Fannibals, myself included, were certainly shipping them in that way) with an interloper in Jack Crawford drawing Graham away from Lecter’s influence, nearly the exact same could be said of Dare Me’s central women—Addy Hanlon as the empath, Beth Cassidy as the force of controlled chaos and Colette French as the stern, quick-to-temper boss trying to keep everything afloat.

These fun, surface-level comparisons hardly begin to tie the series together, though. It is in Dare Me’s aesthetics where the most obvious and striking companionships are observable. The series is hugely stylized—generous use of slow-motion, scenes of vibrant colors contrasted with chiaroscuro, metaphors evoked through unreal images that take place in either the unconscious or subconscious experiences of Addy and Beth, grinding sound effects that unsettle the viewer.

The fifth episode, “Parallel Trenches” (one of the best-written episodes of television in recent memory, because of its powerful, convincing use of subjectivity), begins with an isolated image sequence of teeth being dropped into a pool of milk, mixing whites and the red of blood. The sixth episode, “Code Red”, features a narrated sequence of Beth’s that takes place in a black dreamscape, Beth eventually briefly hung in mid-air without the support of her fellow cheerleaders, evoking the standout “underwater” scenes from Under the Skin (2013, dir. Jonathan Glazer), before being haunted by her menace—the aptly named Corporal Kurtz.

These scenes may as well have been in episodes of Hannibal, and it’s from about the midpoint of Dare Me onward that the series appears to become self-aware of how it’s operating in a completely different tier of visual and aural narrative to anything else on television at the moment (or since Hannibal was cancelled). The cold opens in the back half of the season warrant the kind of frame-by-frame breakdown that some of television’s densest series deserve.

Thematically, too, Dare Me transcends its conceit, which is otherwise supremely entertaining television at its worst. Hannibal has also seemed, to me, a love story interested in expanding our received boundaries of what love is and can be. In popular media, we tend to associate it with the traditionally romantic or the sexual, but both Hannibal and Dare Me give great examples of love’s multifaceted nature—love between friends, spiritual love, emotional love untainted by carnal desires. It is an incredibly sexy series at times, but where other creatives might give in to the easiness of those dynamics, Dare Me’s staff are wonderfully withholding and point the camera elsewhere when it makes for more interesting storytelling.

That all of this happens in what can be inappropriately described as “just a cheerleading show” is all the more satisfying. I still encounter a lot of people—fans of television among them—who have yet to shirk some of their biases when deciding whether or not to try to engage with something new. Mostly, this happens with animation, where the number of people who feel that animated television or films can’t be taken seriously is still disappointingly high. Certain genres fight against these kinds of biases, too, and even with a history of smart high school dramas (or half-dramas) that appeal to adults—Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), The O.C. (2003-07), Veronica Mars (2004-19), Friday Night Lights (2006-11) or, more recently, Sex Education (2019-present)—the stigma is there for some potential viewers. While I understand where this comes from, the ideal is that (assuming the initial reviews aren’t disastrous; Dare Me has a Metacritic rating of 73 based on 12 reviews, which is above average for first seasons) viewers would be open enough to going into something with the capacity or even desire to be proven wrong. And, if any recent series could do this regarding the high school-set drama, it would be Dare Me.

The heart and soul of the series—its driving force and most compelling component that makes it impossible to turn away—is Marlo Kelly’s performance as Beth. Kelly is largely undiscovered in America, having done a stint on the Australian soap Home and Away and the eponymous role in Patricia Moore (also Australian). The recent Hulu/BBC Three production Normal People is a frightening example of natural acting talent, with two young leads who manage to give off a sense of having acted for decades already. Add Kelly’s name among them and add Beth to the truly great characters in story-based art, television (and prose fiction, as this is an adaptation) or otherwise.

Few on-screen presences I can think of so totally pervade the story in which they’re involved to the point of seeming bored at how easily they can manipulate situations and people to their advantage. One might have to skip the history of incredible television mischief-makers and go back to Iago in Othello to understand the tradition from which Beth comes. Occasionally sadistic, extremely alluring and entirely vulnerable, Beth Cassidy would make any story more interesting simply by her being a part, and Kelly brings her to life in ways that are as terrifying as they are terrific.

Dare Me also manages to do what, to me, feels more and more like one of the most difficult things to pull off in contemporary television by being genuinely helpful and instructive to its audience without being didactic. From a social perspective, it’s important to have stories that deal with topics like suicide and sexual assault for representation and awareness. From an artistic perspective, so many of these instances wind up falling aesthetically flat or, worse, resort to soap-box lecturing or self-shoulder-patting. Dare Me navigates these issues beautifully and is such a feminine-positive series without being confrontational and judgmental. Its staff of writers and directors are almost entirely female, its excellent choice of songs (much of them hip-hop) make a soundtrack that almost entirely includes female artists and, of course, its central cast is made up of the three aforementioned actors. So, too, does it handle its trickier topics with honesty and empathy, never relying on trauma for its drama nor forgetting about it as the series progresses. All three of its main characters carry much pain with them, and that fact is always treated with care, even as some of them repeat past mistakes as the narrative demands.

Simply, Dare Me had one of the most confident first seasons of television of the last few years, and it would be an utter shame if this was the end of the road. USA may have not been the right long-term home for the series, and the hope is that Abbott and Fattore are able to find a new one in the coming months. As the international distributor of the series, Netflix might seem like the obvious candidate. But Dare Me also evokes television of years previous by lending itself so well to the week-by-week format of non-streaming networks.

Though the murder-mystery element to it that makes shows like Riverdale (20017-present) so bingeable is a part of Dare Me, it is not the primary element to its success; the first season is obviously designed to be viewed weekly and, in the same way that Fuller’s team produced something beautiful with Hannibal while operating within the ratings constraints of a broadcast network, the Dare Me staff work so well towards the constraints of not being on a streaming service—working around commercial breaks, evoking sexuality and violence without being gratuitous. It would almost be a shame if a streaming service like Netflix snapped this up and the series had to worry about changing its form or style (which is still much preferred to it not being picked up at all, to be clear).

The best thing you can do while we wait to find out what happens to Dare Me is just to watch it, of course. And, if you’ve seen it already, re-watch it; great television deserves that. Consider Dare Me a cautionary tale that shows how no one is quite safe, even with all the changes in the landscape of television. An article like this certainly should have been written months ago, and I can only claim foolishness for the assumption that USA wouldn’t cancel it from its relatively light schedule of original programming. As the world of television and ratings becomes more and more diluted by the embarrassment of riches for the viewer, it becomes more and more necessary for fans of a series to be a bit louder on whatever platforms they have available to them. The harder it is for a series to get noticed outside of their inherent fan base, the more online discussion helps it. So, if you are a Dare Me fan or a fan of another series that isn’t secure for at least another year already, please put your passion out there in whatever ways you can. That passion is more contagious than you know.

Written By

Sean is a TV and film critic and a poet based in Birmingham, England. His first pamphlet, 'Saeculum', was published with Bare Fiction in 2018.

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