A lot can change in a few short years. Technology moves quickly, and so do colloquialisms. But when Megan Abbott and Gina Fattore were adapting Abbott’s 2012 novel “Dare Me” for a 2019 audience, they made it a point to focus more on the universality of a coming-of-age drama and how sometimes one relationship can change everything.
“We were always much more interested in the ‘internalities’ of adolescence, rather than the things that technology or social media change. You date yourself so quickly if you focus too much [on the latter], so we really tried to focus on the elements of being a young woman with feelings of yearning, the desire for more experience, that sense of wanting things that are just beyond your reach, and the feeling that you have power but also being thrown into situations where you’re suddenly aware of your powerlessness,” Abbott tells Variety.
The novel of “Dare Me,” and now the show of the same name, explores themes of friendship, sexuality, competition, murder and power through the world of high school cheerleading. Addy (Herizen F. Guardiola) and Beth (Marlo Kelly) have a complex dynamic in which Beth is often the alpha, with Addy as her No. 2 — both on and off the field. Their expectations for their cheerleading squad get up-ended when a new coach, Colette (Willa Fitzgerald), comes into play — a presence in their lives that begins to challenge their closeness in general as Addy begins to follow Coach similarly to how she once followed Beth.
“I have told coming-of-age stories on so many shows; it’s really my favorite kind of show. I looked at the book in that way and saw instantly the chance to make the first season really a classic coming-of-age story about a relationship with an older person that changes your life,” says Fattore. “Sometimes that’s a romantic relationship, but sometimes it’s not, and in this case it’s a mentor relationship. That territory felt perfectly applicable to TV.”
The one area in which Abbott and Fattore did want to address changes from the publication of the novel to present-day is in how much more open young people have become in terms of discussing but often not wanting to label their sexuality. In the novel, Addy and Beth do take things beyond just being best platonic friends, but the feelings in the wake of that sexual encounter are expressed differently for each girl. Meanwhile, Addy’s infatuation with her new coach can be interpreted as a romantic crush or simply idealizing a new role model.
“It was a much more binary world in 2012, and now one of the most exciting things about this moment is all of those binaries that were false to begin with are being dismantled. That was something that we really wanted to explore,” Fattore says.
In the show as in the novel, the shift in Addy and Beth’s relationship after that encounter is different for each young woman, but Abbott notes, “It is great to be able to not have to put on a label on it — because it allows for the subtlety and the complexity and for things to go places.”
The novel is told from Addy’s point of view, and she is increasingly revealed to be a biased and unreliable narrator who colors descriptions of those around her with her own judgements of them, but also has blind spots that cause her to miss important details. The show starts from Addy’s perspective, “entering the universe through her eyes,” as Fattore puts it, but “as we go along throughout the season, we show you things that she doesn’t see.”
Although Abbott admits there was nothing added to the show that was explicitly left on the cutting room floor of the novel, one area she was particularly personally excited to expand was the inner workings of Beth.
“Beth as a character is very near and dear to me, and one of our discussions in the room was that we didn’t want her to be a simplistic mean girl character. In the book you come to understand her, but she is still seen by many readers as the villain, and to me she never was — in some ways she’s the hero just because she’s really rich and complicated. We really wanted to show how she became so hard and how she became so destructive and how much she really needs Addy,” Abbott explains.
Having the more sprawling real estate of a 10-episode first season of a potentially on-going drama series certainly aided in creating a “bigger, richer world,” Abbott acknowledges. The adaptation rights to the novel were scooped up in 2013, the year after the book was published, but originally for a feature film. That film never materialized, and instead attention was turned to the small-screen. USA ordered a pilot in April 2018 and then sent it to series in January of this year. Because Abbott, Fattore and studio UCP did not take the limited series approach with adaptation, the events of the novel do not play out in full in the first season.
“I didn’t start the process by laying out the events of the book on cards,” Fattore says. “I realized I didn’t have to go as fast. These are rich, amazing character [with an equally so] world to explore. We wanted to let the characters grow and move, and then one of them would die.”
As Addy gets more entangled with Coach Colette, the woman comes to rely on her for things such as babysitting and eventually keeping her secret about an affair. When this man is found dead, there is a question over whether he committed suicide or was murdered, a crime that was “a story engine to tell a larger story” for Abbott’s novel.
“I think crime is this great vehicle because it pushes people into extreme situations where they have to show you who they are, and that’s great for character revelation. For Addy, our main character, the journey of seeing what she’s made of and what her values are and how much she really wants things, she’s put to the test when it gets to that extreme, and that’s my fascination with crime: You push people to these pressure points and all of the masks come off,” Abbott continues.
But before getting there in the series, she stresses the importance of making sure the audience would “care about the characters” first, so that they would “feel the loss that comes and the complications. To do that you really want to live with them awhile.”
This meant building up the bond that Addy and Colette developed, as well as slowly turning the tables on what Addy thought Colette’s life was like to learning a sadder truth. “There is a moment in the pilot that is echoed in the finale with Addy standing on the front lawn looking inside Coach’s house and eventually we get inside that house to see how different it is,” Abbott points out. “It’s about standing on the outside wanting in and standing on the inside wanting out. Part of her fascination with Coach is she has a crush on her, and in part this is a story about love and the hazards of love and getting in over your head. It’s never one thing when you’re a teenager: You’re feeling all of these things at once and they’re all mixed up, and we wanted to have that for Addy: This isn’t about what she should be doing, this is what she’s feeling and what she’s acting on.”
It also meant more fully fleshing out the character of Colette to not simply be shown through Addy’s eyes all of the time.
“We had these amazing discussions about, ‘Here is a woman who is not going to smile,'” Abbott says of working with Fitzgerald, as well as pilot director Steph Green. “We’re used to women having to smile and be warm and maternal, especially as leaders, and so it was a fascinating journey where we just kept presenting this character as, ‘This is who she is and this is how she leads.'”
Colette can be a harsh critic at times (“That moment where she pinches the young girl’s stomach in the pilot was much-discussed,” Fattore says. “We knew that would make some viewers look at her differently, but that was the discussion we wanted to have.”), but her commitment to excellence is what is needed for such a competitive world. In addition to wanting to ensure they portrayed the complex, layered emotions of teenage girls, Abbott and Fattore, too, wanted to properly pay respect and do justice to cheerleading.
“It’s so interesting that we still struggle more with young women being competitive or committed to their sport versus young men. It’s very rare that we talk about football players being vicious, but I do think we tend to be more surprised when it tends to be young women. I think we, as a culture, are still catching up with that aspect of it — that female sports culture still has this gauzy lens over it. That’s changing a lot in the last few years, especially with all of these scandals that have shown systemic abuse, but we tend to be a little more critical of young women going hard against each other in sports when that’s really what you’re supposed to be doing in a way,” Fattore says.
“Dare Me” required its cast to attend cheer camp prior to production beginning so that its performers, many of whom had dance and gymnastics backgrounds, could learn about the sport they would be portraying. But it also created an environment in which the actors could be immersed in the mindset of their characters.
“Competing with one another really made them up their game. It didn’t replicate the plot of the show to that extreme, but it definitely brought out their desire to shape themselves and take these risks,” Abbott says. “The metaphor of cheerleading is real: You have to support your girl. It is a sport where you actually, as much as you are competitive with each other and are wanting to be better, you can’t be better alone.”
“Dare Me” premieres Dec. 29 on USA.