‘School Spirits’ fails to successfully spook

The cast of “School Spirits” is pictured above. The cast features numerous well-known names like Peyton List, Milo Manheim and guest actors Josh Zuckerman and Maria Dizzia. // Photo courtesy of Ed Araquel Paramount+

Our Take: 3.5/5 Stars

Coming just in time to save audiences from the between-Halloweens doldrums,  “School Spirits” on Paramount+ is the newest offering in the paranormal coming-of-age high school drama genre. The five episodes of this series released so far, however, make it abundantly clear that this series lacks any distinctiveness to make it memorable.

The story, adapted by Nate Trinrud and Megan Trinrud from their upcoming graphic novel, follows Maddie Nears (Peyton List) as she finds herself deceased and trapped in purgatory at Split River High School, where she is a senior. To her (living) classmates, Maddie is just missing, which upsets her friends Simon (Kristian Flores) and Nicole (Kiara Pichardo), as well as her often-high boyfriend Xavier (Spencer MacPherson), who is an immediate suspect in her disappearance.

Maddie doesn’t know how she died or where her body is. She is informed of her deceased status by a frosty-haired teen spirit named Charley (Nick Pugliese). Allegedly, he died at the high school in the ’90s and has been stuck at the high school in the afterlife since. Charley explains to
Maddie that because she died at the school, she’ll be there indefinitely until she “crosses over” to whatever comes next but that this phenomenon rarely occurs.

Charley takes Maddie to the Split River High Afterlife Support Group led by a Mr. Martin (Josh Zuckerman), who believes that this purgatory is a way for spirits to talk out their pasts so that they can move on and not be stuck at the school forever. Here, Maddie meets more fellow spirits, like football player Wally Clark (Milo Manheim), poet/wannabe beatnik Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin) and an unnamed ’60s-style hippy character (RaeAnne Boon).

Each of these characters, as much potential as they have, unfortunately lack the strong writing needed for them to shine. The desire to keep watching is less driven by fan theories or red herring clues but rather by the writers intentionally hiding information. A lack of real or even potential “ships” makes this show difficult to belong to a fandom. “School Spirits” also suffers the same actor-character age mismatches that other high school dramas like “Riverdale” and “Never Have I Ever” have also been criticized for — few, if any, characters look like they belong
anywhere near a high school.

There is enough this show has, though, to keep watchers going — not the least of
which is List’s strong acting as Maddie. The “Jessie” alum gives her character a scrappy attitude and, in Maddie’s believable annoyance with her situation, offers viewers the freedom to be annoyed as well. The emotion she is able to deliver despite a middling plot and somewhat cheesy script is commendable. List effectively proves that through this mature-rated high school drama, she has the potential to graduate from being perceived as just another Disney Channel star.

Surprisingly free of the usual melodrama that usually accompanies shows like this, the writers manage to do some things right. “School Spirits” draws strength in that it at least tries to provide a whodunit with high school-aged characters without resorting to the classic high school house party scene — at least, so far.

Production and editing-wise, Maddie’s endeavors to reconstruct the events of the night she died allow for the series to divide its attention between the days prior to her demise and the present. These flashbacks are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio (as opposed to the show’s usual 16:9), enabling smooth trans-itions between past and current events. This method of showcasing glimpses of memories and alternating timelines ensures that the mystery unfolds at a moderate pace that maintains the show’s intrigue while avoiding premature spoilers.

Furthermore, there are enough jokes, euphemisms and innuendos scattered throughout the series that watchers can at least have a chuckle as they wait for the next episode (because this definitely feels like one you should watch). The names of each episode should also be appreciated — every one of them references ghost/spooky classics. For example, the pilot is titled “My So-Called Death,” a play on the name of the critically-acclaimed 1994 teen
drama “My So-Called Life.”

Interested watchers can view five of the eight episodes of “School Spirits” on Paramount+ now, with subsequent episodes set to release once a week. The Trinruds’ eponymous graphic novel is set to be released in fall 2023.