In his voice-over narration of Double Indemnity, insurance salesman Walter Neff tells his story in retrospect and ruefully wonders, “How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” The new suspense series Dare Me (now available on Netflix Canada) is likewise recounted by cheerleader and college hopeful Addy (Herizen Guardiola of The Get Down). “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” she promises in the first episode.
Based on Megan Abbott’s 2012 novel, Dare Me is set in the world of competitive high-school cheerleading. Abbott herself is also the series’ executive producer, co-creator and co-showrunner along with Gina Fattore. In addition to being a best-selling novelist (most recently with the psychological thriller Give Me Your Hand), Abbott previously worked as a writer and story editor on The Deuce and is an expert on the hardboiled fiction of James M. Cain, Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler (literally: she has a PhD in noir literature).
Abbott has written about hysteria and contagion, and about power dynamics in the gymnastics community and among research scientists. So why cheerleaders?
“It was something I knew very little about and was very different when I was in high school in the late ’80s,” she explains from her home in Queens. “I became interested in how acrobatic and gymnastic it had gotten and fascinated by how the young women who talk about the stunts and the risk and their injuries. They were so proud of them!” She visited news groups and message boards where young women swapped photos of scars, wounds, sometimes even X-rays. “It seemed so audacious and awesome.” (“Pressure is how diamonds get made,” is one Dare Me character’s appraising mantra.)
“It’s also this metaphor for how the culture treats teenage girls and young women in general,” she continues. “And that slowly is being torn down from within – that the cheerleader who has this perfect mask of all-American girlhood could be really the badass of them all.”
Accordingly, the show shoots cheer routines in a variety of ways to convey that athleticism and acrobatic brutality, from aerial shots of bodies abstracted into geometric shapes (inspiration: Busby Berkeley) to images shot a hair’s breadth from the tangled limbs in vertiginous pyramids. “We wanted to get inside stunts and get a sense of the height, of what it feels like to be on the bottom or the top.” Ambition, loyalty and betrayal become interesting themes to explore inside a sport that depends on complete trust to accomplish its physics-defying squad goals.
The series also happens to be “on mat” following the streamer’s reality show phenomenon Cheer. “It’s the perfect timing, in this weird way,” she says. “With the female swagger and rage bubbling up in the culture.”
Dare Me follows Addy, the observant lieutenant to charismatic head cheerleader Beth, “though in some ways Addy is a very unreliable narrator – complicated and strange,” Abbott warns. Australian Marlo Kelly (in a breakout role) was cast as the flinty best friend because she could be “more than the mean girl. Someone with gravitas you could imagine a cult of personality around.” So is the interloper and rival for Addy’s affections: their fierce and magnetic new coach Colette (Willa Fitzgerald) – a “cold, beautiful and demanding” mentor that Abbott likens to a Hitchcock blonde (and indeed, a later episode contains a coiled coif framed as a wink to Vertigo).
It’s also that rare show that centres, and takes seriously, female friendship – let alone teenage female friendship. Abbott cites the relationship between Angela and Rayanne in My So-Called Life as a model for the kind of intensity she wanted to explore. “It’s something many young women go through and a critical developmental moment for so many.”
This ruptured friendship, however, goes beyond the angst of coming-of-age stories and becomes a languid crime story filled with dread. “We wanted to do something with a rawness and deep emotionality, and dark.” As it stealthily veers into mystery, Abbott says she and Fattore looked to how David Lynch riffs on noir, “and the way that he, especially in Twin Peaks, believes that the show should feel how the world feels to the characters. So we sort of see the world as they experience it.” One scene, for example, quietly hovers in the night outside the illuminated kitchen window of a bungalow, emanating the private ennui of Edward Hopper.
The show’s distinctive painterly qualities, a Rust Belt eerieness, are thanks to Emmy-winning production designer Michael Bricker (Russian Doll) and director of photography Dagmar Weaver-Madsen– with an assist from Canada. Dare Me was filmed around Toronto and Hamilton last summer, with locations doubling as the Midwest chosen to evoke the faded, slightly seedy grandeur of a post-war industrial boom town (watch for skyline views from atop the Westin Harbour Castle, Monarch Park Stadium, Handy Market parking lots and Lakeshore’s Dairy Cream).
“Early on, back in the days of Pinterest,” Abbott recalls, “I had started collecting images, like The Virgin Suicides, William Eggleston, Saul Leiter.” In particular, she mentions that the first page of the pilot script references the photographic tableaux of artist Gregory Crewdson. “His pieces show the suburbs as pretty dramatic places filled with feeling,” Abbott explains. “Haunted, tragic, sad and beautiful – and big.”
Dare Me is available to stream now on Netflix
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.