When your job entails watching several new shows a week, overlapping themes are inevitable. Still, similarities between shows are rarely as stark as those between the first seasons of Netflix’s “Spinning Out” (out Jan. 2) and USA’s “Dare Me” (which premiered Dec. 20). Both dramas focus on teen girls as restless as they are talented, a combination that serves them well in their respective competitive sports — figure skating for “Spinning Out,” cheerleading for “Dare Me” — and have them scrambling to survive in their daily lives. Both examine motherhood, and how adults can blur the lines in their relationships to the teenagers in their care to devastating effect. Both are pulpy and propulsive as they set their bleeding hearts on a silver platter for the audience to eat up. And yet, one show is significantly more nuanced and compelling than the other in several fascinating, instructive ways.
“Spinning Out,” from Samantha Stratton, follows a family of three women, each determined, stubborn, and skilled in her own way. Carol (January Jones) was a promising figure skater in her own right before she had Kat (Kaya Scodelario), whose own talent blazed too brightly for anyone to ignore. Her younger daughter Serena (Willow Shields) is a powerful skater who lacks Kat’s artistic touch, a detail that no one will let her forget. Despite their constantly roiling feelings, the three of them are bonded against a world that looks down on them for lacking the money and resources so many others in their elite Idaho ski town do. And as is quickly revealed, Kat and Carol also share the same mental illness — bipolar — that they each struggle to handle without upending everything they’ve worked for. The series has all the right ingredients for an addictive watch: a solid premise, some compelling actors, and some classic teen show tensions and rhythms in the earnest vein of “Degrassi” braiding it all together.
But as the season plods towards its uneven finale, “Spinning Out” instead does exactly what its title promises instead of sticking the landing. Each episode runs almost a full hour long, but the stories rarely fill that space as they should. The parallel threads of Carol and Kat’s mental illness quickly collapses into flat clichés. The show’s overtures toward fleshing out minor characters like Kat’s best friend Jenn (Amanda Zhou) and coach Dasha (Svetlana Efremova) wither on the vine under the weight of clunky writing. Its overt effort to bring in a black character with Kat’s manager Marcus (Mitchell Edwards) results in him getting (sorry) spun out into his own completely isolated storyline in which every beat feels like a beg for inclusivity points. The blossoming romance between Kat and her bad-boy skating partner Justin (Evan Roderick) lacks the chemistry to fizz half as much as “Spinning Out” insists it does. Worst of all, the show fumbles a crucial storyline concerning Serena, only revealing the truth when it might be the most shocking. As with so many things on “Spinning Out,” it’s surprising only because it’s unearned, and even more disappointing for it.
Directly after finishing “Spinning Out,” I turned to “Dare Me,” Megan Abbott and Gina Fattore’s dark series based on Abbott’s novel. It picks up with the arrival of Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald), a former cheerleader turned terrifying coach whose own resentment eats away at her with every passing day. She quickly drives a wedge between best friends Addy (Herizen Guardiola) and Beth (Marlo Kelly), defacto leaders of the cheer squad and whose codependence had been a basic fact of their lives up to the point Colette comes blazing into their lives. Addy and Beth’s friendship is realistically fierce and wild, fraught with jealousy, longing, competition, and more than a little sexual tension. None of this escapes Colette, who turns Addy against Beth to draw her further into her own orbit, both on purpose and by virtue of her inherent magnetism. Addy’s admiration of Colette, and the way Colette feeds off of it, is a wreck waiting to happen — and both of them not only know it, but crave the impending damage.
As the season unfolds, “Dare Me” portrays the hurt driving so many bored teen girls, and the dangers of those who would exploit them for fun and profit, with almost painful clarity. Unlike “Spinning Out,” “Dare Me” will air weekly on USA, which is honestly a shame. I’m not often in the business of advocating series dropping all at once, a tactic that’s stretched too many streaming seasons into unbearable drags. “Dare Me,” however, is a wicked thriller that practically demands that its audience gorge upon it. It’s lush and seductive, a fact that it’s both aware of and uses to chilling effect. Even when its directing leans too hard on slow-mo, its use of shifting perspectives makes it consistently fascinating. The show’s biggest gamble is that it doesn’t even reveal its biggest narrative twist until deep into the season, after it’s already laid an intricate web of groundwork. This bizarre delay of what appears to be an inciting incident would usually be unbearably frustrating, but “Dare Me” makes the case for relationships being the springboard for everything, as is so often the case in real life. It’s so smart about the characterization of its leads, and its central three actors are so specific in their deft performances, that it pays off. (Kelly is particularly impressive as she gives the seemingly one-dimensional Beth about ten different expressions in any given shot, depending on who’s looking.) “Dare Me” has bigger and more jarring turns than does “Spinning Out,” but they nonetheless feel more natural, foreshadowed and considered in a way that the skating drama, which so often feels like it’s just running down a teen drama checklist, rarely nails.
Both shows prove how much material lies in delving into the worlds of teen girls and the competitions that drive them. Both are, to their credit, clearly concerned with not condescending to their teen demographic in the way so many other shows would. But in watching them back to back, there’s an undeniable lesson in the uninspiring way “Spinning Out” builds itself up brick by dutiful brick, versus the visceral thrill of watching “Dare Me” defy and dissect the usual teen drama script in order to find something more spellbinding within.
“Dare Me” premieres December 29 at 10 pm on USA. (10 episodes; all reviewed.)
“Spinning Out” premieres January 2 on Netflix. (10 episodes; all reviewed.)