School Spirits, a supernatural teen-drama mini-series in nine parts on Netflix by way of Paramount Plus, tells an engaging story about a plucky, troubled high school senior who suddenly has to deal with the fact that she’s … well, dead. And worse than just dead: murdered.
The nine-episode series was created by Nate and Meghan Trinrud, who apparently pitched somebody – maybe Joyce Sawa, who’d done a bunch of TV thrillers and Christmas movies, or maybe somebody at Paramount Plus – with their yet-to-be-published graphic novel about eighteen-year-old Maddie, who wakes up in the basement of her suburban high school, apparently dead and now a ghost… though she doesn’t know how or why she died. Now she has to work with other ghosty dead kids and teachers who died at the school over the years to figure out what the hell happened.
This whole ‘pitch from an unpublished comic’ is a pretty unusual origin story in itself. The Trinruds don’t have a rep as writers or artists in comics; the producers never had a project this big before, but somebody liked what they saw here, and boom, it showed up on Paramount Plus last March, and is now available on Netflix and Amazon as well.
And you know what? It’s pretty well done, and especially well acted. I won’t be the first to point out that Peyton List, as Maddie, gives a terrific, believable and remarkably nuanced performance, and if you look at List’s background, this woman has definitely paid her dues. Yet another Disney girl who stood out when she was all of twelve or thirteen on a series called Jessie and its spin-off Bunk’d, then in a couple of movie versions of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Still in her teens, she got noticed outside Disney playing a young version of Katherine Heigl – hey, there’s a challenge — in 27 Dresses. And she did voice work, she did music videos, she did TV movies and single episode guest-shots, and an entirely forgettable miniseries for Hulu called Light as a Feather, as well as a weird-ass set of dystopian movies for YouTube Red called The Thinning … then got re-noticed in that legendary YouTube-to-glory phenomenon called Cobra Kai. Mind you, this young woman is only 25, and she’s already got close to 100 credits – more like 200, if you count each episode of Jessie and Bunk’d separately – and now she’s finally getting the spotlight she deserves.
The rest of the acting, almost entirely from people you’ve probably never heard of, is top-drawer as well, especially relative newcomer Kristian Ventura, Maddie’s best friend and the only living person who can see her for most of the series. He holds his own scene-for-scene with her in a really difficult role. The only face that might look familiar is Maria Dizzia, a very talented character actor for years, one of those, “I don’t know her name, but she’s good,” people, who did a stint in Orange is the New Black and about a zillion TV series. Her work in the later episodes of School Spirits is especially strong.
You might recognize one other actor: Milo Mannheim, playing the surprising jock Wally. I was halfway through the fourth episode before I realized that hey, that’s the kid from Disney’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S series – gad, another Disney kid! — and he’s cool and charming here, and meanwhile dances and sings like a dream over there. Whoa.
As for the writing – damn good. It would have been easy for the writers to stick with a latter-day version of Breakfast Club or Mean Girls and stuff Split Valley High – yeah, the worst town name in film since Bumfuck, Idaho — with cliches like thr dumb-bunny cheerleaders or the mean/racist jocks or the nerdy boy with a heart of gold, but… they didn’t. Virtually all of the characters, living and dead, are remarkably well-rounded and likable, or at least understandable. Mannheim’s Wally is a great example. Even Maddie mistakes him from the stereotype at the beginning, but as the series proceeds, he turns out be be sweet and gentle and smart. Again: nice work.
Now that’s not to say there aren’t problems here. The biggest one, pointed out be many others, is the weird relationship of the living to the dead. These ghosts have virtually no ghostly powers; they can’t walk through walls or float; they look physically present at all time; they cast shadows; they touch each others; they effortlessly interact with solid objects like doors and french fries, even when they’re in the same room as living people who can’t see them. So … how does this work? Do the living see those books and tater tots floating around? Or do all those walls and tables and tots exist in two separate parallel dimensions, where solid objects are duplicated but don’t? Actually? Exist in the living … world?
I don’t know. And it might not bother you at all, but occasionally – like when they go to the prom, or when Charley bursts through a paper barrier all his own at a football game but nobody reacts– it gets confusing.
Overall, the plot of School Spirits is nice and twisty-turny without being frustrating, pointing you towards one suspect in Maddie’s murder and then another, slowly revealing how the various dead kids deal with their continued unwilling existence at the high school. The only real problem is the ending and that –– oh,, wait a second:
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT PROCEED IF YOU PLAN TO WATCH THIS!
Okay, now for the rest of you: The biggest problem is the ending, when we discover that Maddie’s body isn’t really dead at all, but has been inhabited by some other spirit named “Janet.” A spirit that ghost-Maddie accidentally lets out of its cell in the high school basement, who then ditches her ghost-self and buys a ticket out of town on the next bus. (But hey, it’s “Split Valley” – who can blame her?) It’s not a terrible idea, though possession wasn’t a thing in this world ‘til now. And it does open up the option of Maddie returning from the dead, since she’s not really dead after all. Not entirely, anyway.
The thing is… this is the last five minutes of the nine-episode season. It is essentially the end of the series, and it was all there was when that last episode aired on Paramount Plus back in April of 2023. Now it’s true Paramount announced a second season just a couple of months later, but I tell you, I hate it when these series – and Netflix and Paramount and Amazon Prime are all guilty of this – end on a cliffhanger, leaving a ton of unresolved plot points when they don’t even know if there will be a second season, where that commitment hasn’t been made – which is usually hasn’t, for obvious reasons. And sadly in this case, even though it was authorized long ago, the writers’ and actors’ strike stopped everything for months, so here we are now in January with no idea when Maddie’s story will continue, or even if production has even begun.
It’s very frustrating. And this isn’t the first time – The Wilds comes to mind, that cut off after two full seasons in 2022 with half the story told. And I bet you could name a couple others that just… stopped. You can’t help but think that the producers and show-runners really aren’t interested in the stories as nearly as much as they are getting aniy damn series on the air, and if it ends halfway through, in a kind of streaming coitus interruptus – ooh, that sounds bad – well… too bad. On to the next project.
Oh, and one last little tidbit: the graphic novel on which this was all based was originally planned to publish in 2023 … but if you look it up on Amazon, you’ll see it’s now scheduled to publish THIS year, fall of 2024. I’m guessing it’s because it includes the resolution of the whole Janet/Possession story, and they don’t want that coming out before Season 2 premieres.
Regardless! School Spirits is all out there, on Paramount and Netflix. You can buy the whole season or episode at a time on Amazon, too. Link in the show notes, as per always. , If you’re looking for a satisfying if not soul-shattering weekend binge, with some cool ideas and nice acting touches … go for it!