‘Dare Me’: A ‘Slow Burn’ Approach Rewards Viewers of the USA Drama

'The show is very subtle and tells a lot without words,' star Willa Fitzgerald says.

Rafy/USA Network
Willa Fitzgerald in "Dare Me"

Just looking at its surface and hearing its basic plot rundown — an exploration of teen angst, jealousy, loyalty and the dynamics of power in a small Midwestern town, as seen primarily through the lens of a high-school cheerleading squad and their coach — you might be forgiven if you at first get a mistaken idea of what USA Network’s new drama Dare Me is.

What seemingly starts as sort of a TV-MA version of a CW show like Riverdale slowly, over the course of a few episodes, evolves into a fuller and more intriguing exploration of female desires and dynamics, across a variety of characters of different ages.

“It’s a slow burn,” agrees star Willa Fitzgerald, who plays Colette, the new coach of a high school cheerleading squad in Cleveland, “and this slow teasing out of the backstory of [a woman] who is a very private character and a very secretive character.”

That “slow burn” Fitzgerald talks about is one of the refreshing things about Dare Me, which, while filled with drama, does not let that take away from allowing viewers to spend time with its characters — not only Colette, but members of her squad, especially Addy (Herizen Guardiola), with whom Colette forms a probably inappropriately close friendship, and Beth (Marlo Kelly), a troubled young woman who begins to feel threatened by Colette and Addy’s closeness.

When it spends time in the minds of these various characters, using silence and a very effective musical score, the series gives off terrific vibes of a film like The Virgin Suicides.

“The show is very subtle and tells a lot without words,” Fitzgerald says. “I think what makes this show exciting, is it also functions at a different pace than a lot of television. A lot of television is really fast, and I think that this show is allowed to be a little bit slower and to focus on moments of silence and suspension. It’s kind of poetic in a way that is literary.”

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That literary feel likely comes in large part from Megan Abbott, on whose novel the series is based, and who serves as showrunner. That also explains why, even if the show’s primary focus is on Colette and the younger women in her charge, the series also does not steer away from the thoughts and concerns of other women, like Beth and Addy’s middle-aged mothers, who are lesser but still important characters here.

“All of [Megan’s] books are about women,” explains Fitzgerald, “and they’re all about complicated, messy women. I think that this show is just a natural extension and expansion upon the novel. It is able to — because it’s a TV show and not a book — explore even more of the adult world, especially because the book is written just from Addy’s perspective.

“In the television adaptation, you have the opportunity to get into the minds of all of the three women [Colette, Addy and Beth] and take that journey with them, which makes for a kind of kaleidoscopic picture of how each of these women is struggling, how their struggles are ultimately of a kind, and how they’re probably the product of a system which has ultimately failed women in their key developmental phase. Megan’s just amazing, and it was such a gift to get to have her on set so much of the time.”

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Colette is not far removed from her own high school days, and she courts trouble in her adult world as a wife and mother by keeping one foot too firmly planted in her own world via her cheerleaders. But Fitzgerald herself, who has previously starred in teen-oriented series like Scream and Little Women, finds it refreshing, if different, to take on her first lead series role as an adult character.

“It was really interesting being in a show where there are both adult worlds and high school worlds,” she offers, “and especially the fact that my character straddles both of those worlds. …

“It’s an interesting opportunity to get to play, for the first time, an adult who’s married, who has a young kid, but also who is actively struggling with her place in adulthood and kind of rebelling against the structures of being an adult, and having this relationship that develops with Addy that kind of promises her some sort of potential alternatives to adults. It’s exciting. It’s funny to [have played] a high-schooler for so long and then suddenly just make that jump. It’s great.”

According to Fitzgerald, if Dare Me does well, she may have a chance to continue this role.

“The [first] season is only halfway through the book,” she says. “Fingers crossed [for another season]. We still have half of the story left. I know that Megan has many more ideas beyond that, as well.”

Dare Me, Sundays at 10pm ET on USA Network beginning Dec. 29.

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