Fairytales are weird, distilled expressions of our inherited desires, and the Dead Girl Show, and its idyllic, uncanny small-town setting, is absolutely in the same tradition. — Alice Bolin, “The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show”
Back when Pretty Little Liars was still promising to deliver on its bold misandrist fairy tale thesis, Alice Bolin wrote a gimlet-eyed essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books that juxtaposed the approaches to the Dead Girl Show taken by Twin Peaks and True Detective with that taken by Pretty Little Liars, and explored how shifting the storytelling lens away from adult men and toward still-living teen girls might allow the Dead Girl Show to evolve into something not “about a journey instigated by a Dead Girl body toward existential knowledge, but the mess, the calamity, and the obscurity that are the consequences of misogyny.”
Pretty Little Liars
didn’t, ultimately, live up to this complex ideal, but the changes to the Dead Girl Show that it introduced—the transformation of the tiny, interconnected social worlds teens exist in to dreamy, dark fairy tale spaces; the refusal to offer a unified answer to the existential mystery the Dead Girl represents; the messy agency teen girls have in their own lives, even as the men in their orbit cajole and threaten—have established themselves so thoroughly as structural frameworks for the teen-oriented Dead Girl Shows that have taken Pretty Little Liars’ place since it went off the air that these new shows have been able to hone PLL’s anti-misogyny thesis, while also pushing the Dead Girl Show’s evolution in ever more progressive directions. A Dead Boy at the heart of a Dead Girl mystery? Riverdale is on it. The Dead Girl telling her own story to those left to try and make meaning out of it? 13 Reasons Why at least gave it a try. The Dead Girl and Dead Boy surviving their deaths to step instead into a kind of eldritch, hopeful power? Impulse and Cloak & Dagger are pulling it off!
The evolution doesn’t stop at American television’s borders: International markets are taking the lessons learned from three-plus decades of Dead Girl Shows and a decade and a half of Dead Girl teen shows and putting their own local spin on things—and I’m not just talking straight-up remakes, like the extra-sinister Turkish version of Pretty Little Liars, Tatl? Küçük Yalanc?lar, but also completely new, completely modern Dead Girl Shows primed for the digitally nomadic Gen-Z set. In October, Spain’s buzziest offering, Elite, hit the Netflix stream. This Wednesday, the UK’s slightly older-skewing project, Clique, premieres on Pop TV. Two European Dead Girl Shows, two (at least) Dead Girls (and/or Boys), two new directions for the form as meaningful narrative to go.
Of the two, Elite is the more familiar, at least in terms of teen TV. Set in a staggeringly elite private high school attended uniquely by the children of the 1%—as in, one of the main characters is literally a marchioness—Elite follows the changes to the social order as three students from a public school that collapsed on them while they were inside it are admitted on scholarship. Considering that one of the three scholarship students is a hijabi Muslim and that the father of two of the private school kids owns the construction company that built the school that collapsed, this would make for drama enough, but from the opening shot of one of the scholarship students drenched in blood and staring dead-eyed at the police shouting at and running toward him in dramatically slow motion, we also know that their entry into the one-percent’s orbit resulted in (at least one) murder. So far, so thrilling, and as long as you remember to switch your settings to Spanish [Original] audio with English subtitles, you’re in for a thoroughly calamitous, mostly compelling 10-hour binge.
In comparison, Pop TV’s Clique, following first-year university student Holly (Synnove Karlsen) as she navigates the intimidating clutch of women who’ve earned internships through the equally intimidating female-focused business course the university is famous for, tells a story less familiar for American audiences—not only because American shows rarely launch their stories from college campuses (on American television, college is where great teen shows go to languish), but because neither the story Holly is ostensibly the linchpin of nor her personal motivations are ever made entirely clear. Where Elite takes on the calamity of Bolin’s Dead Girl Show theory by populating its cast with a sprawl of clearly articulated jealousies, agendas and prejudices, Clique is all mess and obscurity, its heroine kept outside of the titular clique (and thus, the story) for the first several episodes, its central villain shrouded until its sixth (and final) episode.
While the two shows diverge in their conceptual approaches to television as an art form, they do share a remarkable percentage of narrative DNA. Aside from being set within dark fairy tale versions of elite academic institutions, both also demand that the audience stick with them as they indulge in regular flashes back and forth through time, and that we take as a given that even though misogyny and gendered violence are key elements of their own theories of a Dead Girl, the distinction between Bad Men and Good Women is less clear-cut than previous Dead Girl Shows might have wanted you to believe (“All Dead Girl Shows betray an Oedipal distrust in male authority figures,” per Bolin).
This is not to say that a chronology in constant state of disarray is compelling—while it may be tolerable on Elite, it is exhausting on Clique (see Emily Nussbaum’s recent column on The Haunting of Hill House for a good description of my feelings on “a reshuffled chronology masquerad[ing] as complexity”). It is also not to say that Elite or Clique backslide into a monstrous revamp of the madonna/whore complex—they do not. Instead, they push the narrative in an entirely different ideological direction, arguing that, rather than one’s adherence to puritanical sexual norms being the thing that predicts one’s capacity for good or evil (these series both gleefully showcase so much sex), it is instead one’s position within the class hierarchy. That is, it’s all about privilege—who has it, who’s jealous of it, and who would kill to keep it. On Elite, those jealousies are made explicit (“When you don’t have any money, honesty is a luxury you don’t have” is actual dialogue spoken by one of the rich girls), and the murder mystery they lead to is tantalizing enough for the drawn-out investigation to be forgiven. On Clique, those jealousies are much more like the bad ket trip Holly subjects herself to in the pilot, diffuse and unclear until it’s almost too late. But in both cases, it is those jealousies, and not the “the girl body [as] both a wellspring of and a target for sexual wickedness,” that drive the Dead Girl story.
Where the Dead Girl Show might go from here isn’t just an interesting thing to imagine—it is something both of these shows will be taking on, soon. Netflix recently announced a second season renewal for Elite, and BBC Three renewed Clique earlier this year after it aired in the UK. So, you know, you might as well get on this particular Dead Girl Show wave while it’s cresting.
Clique premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Pop TV. Elite is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.