Most teen shows could learn a thing or two from School Spirits. With a poster that proudly proclaims “From an executive producer of Pretty Little Liars”, this could have ended up just another dark and suspenseful teen drama trying to recapture the success of, well, Pretty Little Liars.
However, there is so much life, energy, and heart put into School Spirits, it easily stands on its own and forms its own identity, separate from the other teen mystery shows that came before it. The best way I can describe this show’s atmosphere is that it feels like nostalgically flipping through a high school yearbook while listening to a true crime podcast.
School Spirits follows Maddie, a high school senior who discovers one day that she’s a ghost stuck in her school because she died there — at least, that’s what the other ghosts also stuck in her school tell her. She, on the other hand, can’t remember how or why she died, and everyone who’s alive just seems to think she’s gone missing. Still, Maddie isn’t giving up. She’s finding out what happened to her, no matter how impossible it may seem.
Movies like The Edge of Seventeen and Banana Split have pretty much changed the game for what’s considered a good “teen” performance, but nobody would’ve gotten too mad at a teen streaming original for having subpar performances. The cast of School Spirits, however, is pretty phenomenal.
Every major teen character is perfectly cast, boasting natural performances from every cast member in almost every scene. This is a really talented group of young actors and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them end up having strong careers in Hollywood.
The standout cast member really is Peyton List as Maddie, though, who pretty much turns this show into her very own star vehicle. List plays the sarcastic smart-talking but good-natured teen girl with such ease and flair, she’s captivating to watch. It certainly helps that her character is a substantially likable and well-written protagonist, especially since most young adult properties have the most boring lead characters.
Actually, every major teen character in this show is surprisingly well-written. They all feel like genuine teenagers with all the flaws that come with being a teenager, but also all the greatness that comes with it either. No teen character is perfect in this one, but none of them are also completely devoid of likeability.
It’s actually really refreshing considering shows like Riverdale and Euphoria constantly have their teen characters act much older than 17. Maybe I just had a sheltered teenagerhood, but my high school friends and I were just kids figuring out things like friendships, grades, and plans for college. The teens in School Spirits are the same way and a lot of the show’s scenes are just them dealing with the problems and insecurities that typically accompany being that age.
That’s another great thing about School Spirits — despite its premise making it very easy for the show to be constantly dark and gritty, School Spirits doesn’t shy away from light-hearted moments at all. The young characters are allowed to be young and enjoy things like football games and homecoming dances.
Characters are allowed to laugh and make silly jokes with each other, and for a show about a bunch of teen ghosts who died too young, it can be quite humorous at times. One particularly funny and touching scene is when Maddie is talking with her best friend Simon about horror movie monsters, something they both love. It just felt so endearing and genuine to how two teen best friends would actually talk.
There’s a strong focus here on the relationships the characters have with each other, and I really do mean with each other, not just with Maddie. By the end of the first season, I had a strong sense of how each character felt about another, regardless of how much screen time they had together. A lot of these relationships are actually very endearing and feel genuine to how teen friendships usually are.
They can be complicated and don’t always display the healthiest of decisions or reactions, but they can also be intense and remarkable. When you’re a teenager, your best friends can be your whole world, and you sometimes find friendships in people you never would’ve expected to find friendships in.
And when School Spirits gets into the suspense and mystery, it’s thrilling and addictive. Following this show for six weeks was an elating experience — overthinking episode cliffhangers, reading theory after theory online, and having in-depth discussions with friends over lunch made the weekly release format of the show feel justified. This is one of those shows where every episode will have you at the edge of your seat, holding your breath, desperate to find out what happened to Maddie.
This leads us to the show’s most polarizing aspect: its ending. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, School Spirits ends with a big reveal — a smart decision, by the by, since dragging out the mystery into another season would’ve been exhausting — but one which seems to have divided the fandom into two, with some loving it and eagerly awaiting the second season, and some loathing it.
Now, I think School Spirits is a fantastic show regardless of its ending, but with a show like this, it’s almost impossible to have an ending that’ll please everyone. Mystery shows have always been about the journey and not the destination for me, but if you disagree, School Spirits might be a show you’ll want to proceed with caution for.
Nobody’s going to deny the show’s great editing and camera work, though, especially since School Spirits clearly doesn’t have that big of a budget. Still, with all their limitations, the show is still visually impressive and aesthetically pleasing, especially when the episodes transition from present to past and vice versa. Scenes that take place in the past have a filter and a different aspect ratio, looking like a Polaroid picture in motion.
All in all, School Spirits is a welcome surprise in the crowded teen drama genre, one that more teen offerings should be trying to emulate. We need more teen shows that humanize their teen characters rather than turn them into caricatures. School Spirits proves you can have that without having to give up the addictive nature of shows like Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl. Equal parts sentimental and stirring, this show doesn’t waste a single minute of any of its episodes.
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Engrossing from start to finish, School Spirits proves the teen drama genre still has a lot of stamina left in it thanks to its stellar writing and cast, with a particularly star-making performance from Peyton List.
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