Paramount+’s teen supernatural drama feels like a good YA novel come to (after)life.
Some pray high school will never end. Some feel like it goes on for a painful forever. For Maddie Nears (Peyton List), those desires and hyperbolic thoughts may have become quite literal. If you die on her high school’s campus of unnatural causes, you apparently hang around with the other ghosts until you figure out how to move on. Imagine finding out the afterlife is real and you’ll never leave your high school again in the same moment.
One thing School Spirits does well right out of the gates is capturing the mix of confusion, horror, and fun that arrangement would elicit. Maddie, an apparent victim of a murder she can’t remember, is understandably angry about this abrupt end of life. The fact that the list of suspects conceivably includes her burn-out boyfriend Xander (Spencer Macpherson),—who also happens to be the town’s top cop’s son—her favorite teacher Mr. Anderson (Patrick Gilmore), and even her own alcoholic mom (Maria Dizzia) certainly can’t help.
However, the fellow spirits illustrate the complex range of reactions such a situation can conjure. Nineties kid Charley (Nick Pugliese) spends his days peeking at the kinds of boys who would’ve tortured him for being gay back in his living days and mooning over his teen crush turned teacher. Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin), a refugee from the late 50s, has embraced nihilism as every action is a reminder she can’t affect the world of the living. Hero football player of the 80s Wally (Milo Manheim) is cheerful but still lifts and practices with a team of players that can’t see him and weren’t even born the year of his permanent fourth down. Like living teens, they roil with unrealized dreams, the desire to get the hell (no pun intended) out of dodge, and to embrace the comfort of the familiar all at once.
While reportedly an adaptation of a not-yet-published graphic novel by the sister-brother series creator team of Megan and Nate Trinrud, the literary object School Spirits most resembles is a good YA novel. It shares similarly overcaffeinated plotting and bruising perspectives on growing up. It’s also animated by the same “the world you thought you lived in wasn’t the truth” themes that undergird everything from Karen M. McManus’s murder mysteries to John Green’s more grounded portraits of teens in crisis. If those aren’t your bag, School Spirits won’t be either.
While reportedly an adaptation of a not-yet-published graphic novel by the sister-brother series creator team of Megan and Nate Trinrud, the literary object School Spirits most resembles is a good YA novel.
For those who enjoy YA novels or teen-centric stories that aren’t sex comedies, there’s plenty to appreciate in the three episodes provided to critics. For one, List makes an appealing lead. She has some of the classic elements of teen protagonists—she’s parentified because her mom is unraveling, outstanding in school despite not being all that dedicated to it, and already has a fully refined sense of fashion. On the other hand, List invests an impatience and sense of know-it-all-ism in Maddie. She’s mad, and she has every right to be. Still, her certainty often blocks out other voices and has already slowed her investigation into her murder a few times.
The rest of the cast is similarly talented. If anything, three episodes in, there may be too many players. One wants to get to know Rhonda, Charley, Wally, and Mr. Martin (Josh Zuckerman)–the adult ghost who leads their support group—more every time they briefly pop up. The living evoke a similar feeling but for different reasons. Kristian Flores and Kiara Pichardo portray Maddie’s living best friends, Simon and Nicole, with skill. Unfortunately, so far, they feel underwritten. Somehow, despite less time, the dead feel more three-dimensional than the living.
The series also benefits from a PG-13+ approach to the material. Drug use by the students is acknowledged and treated as more like a bad habit than a cause for the rending of garments. Two teens talk sex honestly while still pawing at each other. One ghost’s tale of their death at the hands of a manipulative adult who only helped them to try to seduce them is unblinking in its recollection. Too often, shows about teenagers either sanitize the darkness or push it into the stuff of Greek tragedy. School Spirits is refreshingly more down to Earth.
Plotwise, each episode has enough incident to keep things moving forward, but it is still too early to comment on the quality of the mystery. A moment near the end of the third episode feels overly unrealistic. Yes, for a show about teen ghosts. Yes, I know how that sounds. Otherwise, though, the actions and secrets of the living feel “real” to the world. The deaths of other ghosts—allergies, drugs, sports injuries, dangerous adults—also have an appreciated ring of authenticity.
Teen shows often outstay their welcome as they either escalate themselves ever higher (Glee, everyone knows I mean you). Or they trap the characters in a loop of the same behaviors and mistakes (90210, The O.C., Gossip Girls, the list may be endless). So with only three episodes in, it is difficult to crown School Spirits homecoming queen. However, the players involved, the chessboard’s proverbial setup, and the mystery’s finite nature are all encouraging. So far, at least, it’ll be worth showing up at class to see where this goes.
School Spirits matriculates via Ouija board March 9 on Paramount+.