Peyton List’s Supernatural Show Is Full of Heart
Mar 9, 2023
There’s that amusing little notion that high school is supposed to be “the best years of your life.” But what if those years walking those hallways went on for all eternity? Created by Megan and Nate Trinrud, and based on their forthcoming graphic novel, Paramount+’s new YA mystery series School Spirits follows Maddie Nears, played by Cobra Kai star Peyton List, who is stuck in the afterlife after being murdered in her high school’s boiler room. The kicker: high school is the afterlife. Whenever someone dies on school grounds, they lurk around in purgatory at Split River High, unable to step foot beyond campus. Out of all the imagined concepts of Hell in television and film, an eternity of high school might just be the most punishing.
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Maddie is joined by a group of eccentric teenage ghosts from previous decades who are also trapped in limbo at Split River High: Charley (Nick Pugliese), a gay student from the ’90s who takes Maddie under his wing and shows her the ropes in the afterlife, Wally (Milo Manheim), a lovable ‘80s jock, and Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin), a disillusioned beatnik with a penchant for lollipops and Jack Kerouac. Unlike her fellow “school spirits,” Maddie doesn’t remember how she died, aside from the fact that her blood was found in the boiler room of the school. She dives headfirst into an investigation, desperate to find out what exactly happened in her final moments on Earth that led to her tragic demise. In the land of the living, she is considered a “missing person,” with her body having not been found. Her best friends, Simon (Kristian Flores) and Nicole (Kiara Pichardo) — alive and very much not well — also start their own investigation in the hopes that Maddie is still alive.
Image via Paramount+
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As a young adult drama — and a supernatural one at that — School Spirits could have easily been a drop in the bucket in a genre that is already filled to the brim with forgettable, lukewarm stories. But School Spirits holds its own as a surprisingly refreshing take on the YA murder mystery genre, and that’s largely due to its commitment to character work. Although the mystery of who killed Maddie is intriguing enough, School Spirits doesn’t rely on it to keep its viewers watching. Consider popular YA thrillers that quickly spun off the rails, like Pretty Little Liars or Riverdale, due to increasingly ludicrous “twists” as a ploy to maintain viewership. (Although interestingly, Oliver Goldstick of Pretty Little Liars is the showrunner/producer on School Spirits.) The mystery behind Maddie’s murder is a perfect hook, but it’s the characters themselves and the performances of its young actors that will bring viewers back.
The gang of misfits in the afterlife have that colorful flair of characters who practically leap from the pages of a graphic novel to the small screen. In the same vein as successful graphic novel adaptations like The Umbrella Academy, the ensemble is composed of larger-than-life characters who could be pigeonholed into a stereotype without the right touch. The characters could be one-dimensional, a prototype of their respective decades, but School Spirits takes time to give each one a voice to tell their story. Although this review only covers the first three episodes, there are of course characters yet to be explored — but with its introduction, the series is laying a strong foundation for its cast.
Image via Paramount+
List and Flores, in particular, deliver impressive performances as two young people grappling with the horror of the unknown. List proves that she can certainly hold her own as a lead rather than a supporting character (although one could argue that the entire ensemble of Cobra Kai are the leads). She captures the panic and resolute determination of a leading girl who will stop at nothing to take back the story that was violently snatched from her. Flores’ performance as Simon is so genuine that in one particular scene, his vulnerability and grief over losing a best friend is so real that it breaks your heart. Like with many YA murder mysteries, some of the plot twists and big reveals are somewhat predictable, but it’s not necessarily to the show’s detriment. With there being five episodes left, there will surely be plenty of time for more twists and turns. Each of the first three episodes provided for review manages to deliver at least one satisfying surprise.
A major reason why School Spirits’ mystery works, even despite some predictability, is because of its unique twist on the genre. The idea of living an afterlife in the very same high school you attended — let’s be honest, any high school — is a hell one wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. This setting adds an extra layer of drama as Maddie watches her classmates quickly move on from her disappearance without a care in the world. The other members of the afterlife crew also have the painful experience of watching time go on for decades of change without them. Even if some twists are predictable, the emotional journey the characters are going through — whether they are among the living and suffering a loss of a friend with no answers, or among the dead and robbed of a full life — this type of character work makes up for a little predictability.
There are also a few subtle touches sprinkled throughout the first three episodes that evoke that bite of teen angst but ultimately sincere tone that School Spirits is aiming for. The soundtrack (Phoebe Bridgers’ “I know The End” is a perfect match for the conclusion of the first episode) and the ’90s grunge style that Maddie rocks captures the show’s balance of teen thriller and a genuine drama. With School Spirits, the Trinrud siblings ask you what you would do if your story is taken from you, if you had to watch from the outside as life moves on without you. For a YA series, it pulls off these types of emotional themes without seeming forced or insincere. School Spirits will reel you in with its overarching mystery, but it will keep you hooked with its heart.
The first three episodes of School Spirits drop on Paramount+ on March 9.
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