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1st May 2023

School Spirits review: Paramount’s paranormal murder mystery is to die for

School Spirits is a teen show that has its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist
School Spirits review: Paramount’s paranormal murder mystery is to die for
Photo: Ed Araquel @ Paramount+

There has been a recent influx of films and TV shows featuring ghosts who haunt the living while waiting to complete their “unfinished business” before crossing over to their final destination. Last year, Netflix’s comedy miniseries Boo, Bitch and Disney’s film Darby and the Dead. were released. This year, the American television network ABC premiered its sitcom Not Dead Yet, which follows a newspaper reporter haunted by the ghosts of people whose obituaries she must write.

In Not Dead Yet, each ghost moves on by the end of the episode, while in Boo, Bitch and Darby and the Dead, the focus is limited to one individual ghost’s journey. All these ghosts can freely roam the earthly world.

School Spirits brings something new to the ghostly scene. It features the Split River High Afterlife Support Group, a close-knit band of teenage ghosts who, as students who died at the school, cannot leave the premises. Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin) was killed by her guidance counsellor in the 1960s, Wally (Milo Manheim) was a star high school football player who died on the field in the 1980s, and Charley (Nick Pugliese) died from an allergic reaction in the 1990s. The group is led by the self-appointed Mr Martin (Josh Zuckerman), a former teacher at the school.

Unfortunately, “School Spirits” does not capitalise on the comedic opportunities that could be found in multiple generations of ghosts with different cultural standards living together. However, the social dynamics within the group are still fun to watch. The ghosts try to maintain normalcy with activities like movie nights, attending the annual homecoming football game and school dance, while also embracing the afterlife’s lack of metaphysical consequences by destroying school property. The ghosts of “School Spirits” are not distinguished from the living humans around them by having auras, translucent bodies, or alternative markers of otherness, grounding their ghostly forms in a reality that is as valid as that of their living counterparts.

When Split River High student Maddie (Peyton List) mysteriously disappears, she finds herself in the afterlife and tries to figure out how she got there. She communicates with her best friend Simon (Kristian Flores), who enlists their friend Nicole (Kiara Pichardo), and Maddie’s ex-boyfriend Xavier (Spencer MacPherson), to help him sleuth in the mortal realm. The mystery is compelling, but unevenly paced throughout the show’s eight-episode season. The season finale rushes to pull together the final strands of plot and doesn’t entirely succeed – culminating in a reveal that is far campier than earlier episodes would entertain. 

List gives a stand-out performance, showing a more introspective side to her acting which differs from her brash characterisation in Netflix’s Cobra Kai. It’s unfortunate that broadening the show’s scope beyond its rather contained initial episodes left behind some interesting meditations on grief and mortality which List was undoubtedly able to convey. Flores is equally impressive, imparting empathy and warmth while also portraying the alienation Simon experiences as the sole intermediary between worlds.

Pugliese and Manheim do a terrific job of showcasing their emotional range in scenes that shed light on their characters’ backstories. Manheim, who deftly handles more complex material than the Disney fare he’s known for, is the show’s scene-stealer, bringing a magnetic presence to the screen that is fittingly reminiscent of 1980s Hollywood heartthrobs.

Maddie and Wally’s romantic storyline unfolds prematurely, which is disappointing given the strong onscreen chemistry between List and Manheim, and the sweet dynamic between their characters. The unfulfilling execution of this subplot may have been due to uncertainty surrounding a second season renewal. However, Paramount+ is a relatively new streaming platform with a limited offering of original content. Unless School Spirits was a catastrophic failure, the odds of its renewal would be favourable. Given the show’s large online following, including a subreddit with almost 5,000 members, and relatively well-known leads in List and Manheim, a second season seems likely – and will hopefully inspire more strategic narrative decisions. 

Though set in the present day, the infrequent appearance of modern technology and lack of contemporary references lend School Spirits a timeless quality that few teen shows nowadays aspire to. Yet, the soundtrack was curated with today’s audience in mind. Lizzy McAlpine’s doomsday, and a mellow cover of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, complement the show’s muted aesthetics and perfectly accompany two of its pivotal moments. Overall, School Spirits is a gripping ghost story which blends nostalgia with a fresh take on the teen drama genre. 


School Spirits is available to watch on Paramount+.

Sumayyah Khalid

Sumayyah Khalid

Winner of Writer of the Year (The Mancunion) (SU Awards 2023) | Highly Commended for Best Newcomer (The Mancunion) (SU Awards 2023) | Shortlisted for Best Newcomer (Rising Star) in the UK (SPA National Awards 2023)

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