The new USA Network drama trades in the bright, bubblegum pop world of the now-iconic movie about high school cheerleaders for a darker, grittier, more authentic depiction of what young women go through to compete in what might be the country’s most dangerous — and most underestimated — sport. Based on the book by Megan Abbott (who serves as showrunner), the scripted mystery series set in the cutthroat world of competitive high school cheerleading is part coming-of-age story, part small-town drama, and part murder mystery featuring an all-female led ensemble cast that reveals the physical and psychological extremes that young women are willing to endure in order to get ahead.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you get the inspiration for the book that is now a TV show?
Megan Abbott: I had read a few news articles about coaches becoming overly involved with their athletes socially. I was so fascinated by that dynamic of a lot of cheer coaches in particular in their 20s, not that far out of high school themselves, and then I started to probe more into cheer because it had changed so much since I was in high school. It’s become this hyper-competitive, super-athletic sport. It takes so much courage for these girls to put their bodies through these feats. There was so much to mine from these young women and the risk and ambition and competition and mentorship.
Willa, when you read your first script for Dare Me, what did you think about how cheerleading was depicted?
Willa Fitzgerald: When you hear a show is about cheerleading, you have so many preconceptions you bring in, like Bring It On, which is fully not this show. I read the first script and the women specifically were so complicated and messy and ugly and amazing. There’s a real darker side of human nature that’s explored. I was excited to dive into this extremely complicated and repressed female lead character.
There have been so many depictions of the world of high school cheerleading in pop culture already, with the most famous being Bring It On. How does Dare Me take a different look at the darker aspects of that sport?
Fitzgerald: The show is not about cheerleading. It is a beautiful backdrop of the series and very poetic in the way it demonstrates the relationships the girls have to themselves and it is a vehicle for understanding those characters more deeply. The show is more interested in the athleticism — and the militant nature of that kind of athleticism — than it is about cheerleading and that’s why the show feels so different than other things that have focused on the more peppy side of cheer. Not a lot of people know about the more athletic side of competitive cheerleading. I certainly didn’t. It’s a gymnastic sport that is very dangerous and very intense. A lot of the women on our show are actual gymnasts and cheerleaders. It’s a beautiful metaphor for how women at that age, and even [my character, the coach] in her 20s, have to plaster on a mask of perfection or apathy or pleasure in order to make it through their world.
Abbott: It is such an American icon, the all-American cheerleader and their smiles. It’s really a mask these girls have to wear and want to wear to protect them. It lets them do really anything they want, it gives them this freedom, because they’re doing these wildly risk-taking stunts. It’s a metaphor for girlhood in general too. There are these stereotypes of young girls as these selfie-taking, vain, vapid creatures when all young women are roiling with these complicated feelings. I just couldn’t believe I’ve never seen cheerleading depicted this way. Those are real cheerleaders in Bring It On and they’re doing competition cheer but it’s a comedy and meant to be pop fun. There was still so much ripe territory to mine that was darker and richer.
People also look at cheerleading more seriously as sport now too than they did back then.
Fitzgerald: It’s a sport that’s not taken seriously as a sport, and it’s a sport where there’s no professional league or career you can really have apart from becoming a coach. It’s still relatively niche.
Abbott: There’s no protective gear or equipment. It’s up there with football in terms of risk but football players wear helmets and pads. These women are not wearing anything while being tossed 25 feet in the air. And there’s a crazy kind of bravado in it. They love showing off their war wounds, their injuries, their scars, and even their surgery scars. It’s something we usually associate with masculine energy and I love how it’s coming from young women. It’s the most dangerous sport. And during shooting, I was shocked to see these young women, the bases, they’d get these unbelievable sneaker tread wounds on their shoulders. They’d have two, three, sometimes four women on their shoulders and their shoulders are getting ground down but they’d be so proud of those marks. It’s fascinating.
When it came to adapting the book for TV, what was your priority?
Abbott: We didn’t want to simplify anything to make it more palatable — we wanted it to be messy and sometimes ugly because there is a beauty in the ugliness of these complicated feelings and emotions. We didn’t ever want to compromise on that. We also didn’t want it boiled down to stereotypes like the mean girl or the dumb girl or any clichés from shows about high school.
How closely will the show follow your book?
Abbott: The chunks of the mystery we follow pretty closely but we only get through about half the book in the first season. We were able to build out more story because the book is only from one character’s point of view so it’s very insular and you’re very much in her head. The show rotates between Addy [Herizen Guardiola], Beth [Marlo Kelly], and the coach’s [Fitzgerald] POV. We dig more under the skin and get more perspective on the other characters and squad dynamics.
Since pop culture is always evolving — and teen dramas are wildly disparate now than they were even just a decade ago — how would Dare Me be different if it had been made in the past?
Abbot: I don’t think it would have been made in 2012 when the book came out. I initially wrote the screenplay for a feature film that was obviously never made. A drama that focuses on young women was so much a unicorn then, particularly for this kind of a story with athletic feats and complicated sexuality, this wasn’t even on the table back then. The more culture changed and TV changed, the more door opened and the more I was able to make it without compromise.
Dare Me premieres Sunday, Dec. 29 on USA Network.