Back in the 1990s, my then future-wife and I were big fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003). I still remember having “Buffy nights” at either my place or hers (as a then-new teacher in those days, she found its school setting very relatable). Now, after 24 years of marriage and both of us comfortably in our 50s, we don’t watch a lot of the same shows anymore. Hell, we rarely watch TV anymore, for that matter—I stream my stuff and she streams hers, with the occasional mutual movie night. It was while surfing through Paramount+’s offerings on my iPad during exercise that I came across a new show called “School Spirits” (2023). Created by Megan and Nate Trinrud (coauthors of the forthcoming graphic novel) the eight-chapter first season tells the story of teenager Maddie Nears (Peyton List), who finds herself in high school purgatory, after mysteriously shuffling off this mortal coil.
Maddie finds herself in the presence of other ghosts, who are doomed to roam their high school haunts after dying on campus, unable to leave its confines. Some of them still hope to ascend, while others, being on campus for decades, have made peace with their situations. Maddie, however, will ‘never say die.’ She intends to solve her murder; a murder she can’t even remember, unlike the other ghosts, who each recall exactly how they died. Maddie’s situation is further complicated by the lack of a corpse. Also disheartening is the surprising number of suspects—people Maddie thought she knew, like her friend Nicole (Kiara Pichardo), as well as her brooding boyfriend, Xavier (Spencer MacPherson), who each carry dark secrets. Even a trusted teacher, Mr. Anderson (Patrick Gilmore) is revealed to have some shady financial dealings involving popular rich cheerleader, Claire (Rainbow Wedell), who used to be Claire’s best friend when they were younger.
The one constant in Maddie’s chaotic afterlife is her closest friend, Simon Elroy (Kristian Flores), who is the only mortal able to ‘see’ Maddie’s ghost, but only in parts of the school where someone has died, under psychic circumstances that are just right (think of it as spectral wi-fi). Simon is even more determined to solve Maddie’s murder than she is, to the point of letting his own personal and academic life suffer. It’s no surprise to learn that Simon’s secretly carried a torch for his best friend for a long time, though he’s never acted upon it, for fear of ruining their friendship and because of her boyfriend, Xavier. Xavier is the first suspect in Maddie’s assumed murder, after Simon learns he was cheating on Maddie with Claire (ouch!). Maddie’s own alcoholic mother, Sandra (Maria Dizzia) also falls under brief suspicion, along with several other key characters in this well-crafted, season-long whodunnit.
Despite her corporeal contact with Simon, Maddie is certainly not hurting for new friends in the afterlife, either. She quickly makes friends with Charley (Nick Pugliese), a sensitive gay teen who died on campus in the 1990s after a fatal peanut allergy. She also befriends amiable school jock, Wally Clark (Milo Manheim), who died during the big homecoming game in 1983. She also meets sardonic beatnik, Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin), who was tragically murdered by her guidance counselor in 1964. These ghosts are all part of an afterlife therapy session organized by spectral school counselor, Mr. Martin (Josh Zuckerman), who is seemingly covering up something sinister regarding the recent, unseen ascension of a longtime campus ghost named Janet, whose mysterious exit ties in with Maddie’s arrival…
Maddie Nears (Peyton List) is an average high school teen, who, in the first episode (“My So-Called Death”), finds herself unseen in the school gym, where she meets a mysterious counselor named Mr. Martin, who tells her she’s died, and is in purgatory.
Note: Each of the first season’s eight episodes are pun-named after popular teen movies and/or supernatural TV shows, such as 1994’s “My So-Called Life” = “My So-Called Death,” or 1989’s “Say Anything” = “Séance Anything” etc. It’s a clever gimmick.
Maddie immediately sets about learning the circumstances of her death, which she can’t seem remember. She soon learns the rules of afterlife living, which include being able to manipulate clothes, phones, and other objects, even if they remain untouched in reality. Maddie then meets the ghost of Charley, a gay teen who died in the 1990s. Charley instantly takes Maddie under his wing, showing her the ropes of life after death, while introducing her to her fellow ghosts; sardonic beatnik Rhonda and amiable ‘80s jock, Wally.
These three ghosts quickly become Maddie’s newfound family, despite her own stubborn reluctance to accept her situation. Through the course of the series, we learn that Maddie is deeply embarrassed by her alcoholic and socially awkward mother, Sandra, who attends a candlelight vigil for her daughter in the pilot (“My So-Called Death”). In that first episode, we also meet Maddie’s suspicious boyfriend Xavier, as well as her two best friends, Nicole and Simon—she also realizes that Simon’s devotion to his friend runs deeper than the others; in fact, he is the only one of her friends with a connection strong enough to see and even hear Maddie’s ghost. This is an unprecedented phenomenon among the other ghosts (despite centuries of mediums’ claims to the contrary).
Note: Peyton List (“Cobra Kai”) plays Maddie with a gravitational center much like that of Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Buffy…”; easily leading the show, while allowing each of the ensemble to shine as well. Peyton List’s full name is Peyton Roi List, so as not to be confused with another actress named Peyton List, who played the conniving, incestuous Romulan “Narissa” in the first season of “Star Trek: Picard.”
Maddie’s longtime best friend, Simon Elroy (Kristian Flores), shares the deepest connection to Maddie, which allows him to see and communicate with Maddie’s spirit. Simon’s connection to Maddie also drives him into obsession with helping her solve her ‘murder’, to the point of seriously neglecting his own life and obligations. Simon is also deeply distrustful of Maddie’s boyfriend Xavier, whom Simon learns cheated on her with popular rich girl, Claire (“The Fault in Our Scars”). Simon’s bond with Maddie is, we learn (not surprisingly) due to his unrequited love for her, which he’s kept to himself for fear of ruining their friendship. Simon unselfishly sets aside his own feelings to help Maddie as much as he humanly can, though he begins to doubt his own sanity after finally realizing that Maddie might, in fact, be alive (“Madison’s Body”).
Note: Kristian Flores gives one of the strongest performances of the ensemble, and is one of those actors to watch for, in my opinion. His profound grief for Maddie, as well as his obsession to help her in her quest are thoroughly believable and heartbreaking.
Nicole Herrera (Kiara Pichardo) is Maddie’s other bestie, who is also briefly considered as a suspect in Maddie’s disappearance, when her friend Simon—acting on Maddie’s behalf and unbeknownst to Nicole—stumbles across Nicole’s blackmail plot between popular rich Claire and disgraced teacher, Mr. Anderson. Nicole desperately needed the money to further her own education, and secretly recorded video of Claire and Anderson discussing terms of an illicit financial deal in the hopes of blackmailing both (“Séance Anything”). Suspicion is further raised when Nicole seems to be initiating a relationship with Maddie’s brooding boyfriend, Xavier. Nicole is later exonerated of any wrongdoing regarding Maddie’s disappearance, and ultimately records another video near the end of the season finale (“Madison’s Body”) that changes the entire direction of the show—assuming it comes back for a second season, of course.
Spencer MacPherson plays Xavier Baxter, the brooding boyfriend of missing Maddie, who also lives under the thumb of a corrupt sheriff who is more concerned with rumor control regarding his suspect son than with making genuine progress in solving Maddie’s disappearance (“Dead and Confused”). Xavier’s alibi during Maddie’s disappearance comes into question when it’s revealed he was cheating on her with Claire, Maddie’s former middle school friend. Despite the circumstances, and his own guilty conscience for cheating on Maddie, Xavier is eventually cleared from suspicion by Maddie’s devoted friend, Simon. Xavier later joins Simon and Nicole in learning the truth behind Maddie’s disappearance—up to and including using Xavier’s relationship with Claire to dig for information (“Grave the Last Dance”). Xavier is a prime example of how the show’s ongoing mystery both evolves and continually defies expectations.
The story of town rich girl, prom queen and cheerleader, Claire Zomer (Rainbow Weddell) has surprising depth, as well. Claire used to be neighbors and best friends with the missing Maddie before high school. Claire’s newfound wealth via her mother’s remarriage set she and Maddie on different social strata. We’ve all had that one friend who later finds a ‘different crowd’ to hang with, right? The story of Claire’s wealth is also tied in with the shady business dealings of her father, which also ties into a blackmail scheme involving Maddie’s favorite teacher, Mr. Anderson (Patrick Gilmore), who is forced to resign—adding yet another scandal to a school year seemingly full of them (“Ghoul Intentions”). Despite a knee-jerk reaction to automatically dislike the shallow, pretty, ‘popular girl’ in these kinds of shows (especially after she cheats with the missing girl’s boyfriend), Claire eventually earns our sympathy; not just through her proven innocence in Maddie’s disappearance, but also after selflessly saving the life of a drowning girl in the school swimming pool (“The Fault of Our Scars”). Like the other ‘suspects’ of this season, Claire later joins Simon’s de facto Scooby gang in trying to solve Maddie’s disappearance.
One of the most important characters in helping Maddie adapt to her newfound state is her ghostly guide and friend, Charley (Nick Pugliese), who quickly befriends the disoriented girl when she finds herself in school purgatory. Showing her all the dos and don’ts of ghost life upon her arrival, we learn that Charley was a gay teen living in pre-“Ellen” 1993, who died during a severe peanut allergy at lunchtime. Not above playing a few spectral shenanigans on the living, Charley often spends his ‘off-duty’ hours in the boys’ locker room, where the forever-teenaged ghost is free to scope all the handsome nude guys he wants, with absolutely zero consequences. Charley is later shocked when he learns that his ‘trainee’ Madison is still able to communicate with her corporeal best friend, Simon (“My So-Called Death”).
As we see with all the ghosts, part of why Charley remains stuck in purgatory is because of his own inability to move on from unfinished business in the mortal plane. In Charley’s case, that business involved a handsome foreign exchange student named Emilio Figueroa, with whom Charley became romantically involved during a school camping trip where both were being bullied by straight classmates. However, Charley unwittingly outed Emilio to his socially conservative family, leading to their breakup (“Ghoul Intentions”). Once he learns of Maddie’s ability to commune with Simon, Charley later arranges for her to dictate an apology note to Simon for Emilio, who is now (conveniently) a teacher on campus—carefully arranging for Simon to ‘find’ the note and anonymously give it to “Mr. Figueroa” (“Grave the Last Dance”). If the show gave a kindness trophy to any of its characters, it would have to go to sweet-natured Charley.
Another ghost Maddie befriends on ‘the other side’ is affable school football player, Wally Cox (Milo Manheim), who is almost like a missing character right out of “The Breakfast Club.” Wally is a good-natured guy who, despite being the ‘school jock’ (too often used as a villainous cliche) seems never-ending in his desire to please others—like a human Labrador retriever. He immediately sets about befriending just about everyone he meets, even the deeply sarcastic Rhonda. When he first meets Maddie, she wonders why his name sounds so familiar, until she realizes that the school’s football field is currently named after him (“Maddie’s Body”). Campus hero Wally died during the big homecoming game in the fall of 1983, when he snapped his neck during a rough play. Wally was urged to play football by his mother, who still attends every homecoming game at the school following her son’s tragic death (“The Twilight End Zone”).
If his fellow ghosts gave awards for Morale Boosting, Wally would win hands down. He organizes movie nights for his fellow ghosts by borrowing DVDs from the school library, though it’s never explained exactly how the ghosts interact with real-world objects without affecting (let alone moving) them. Wally also takes point during a weekly ritual where his fellow spirits allow themselves a day of playful venting (“Dead and Confused”). During one such ritual, Wally and Maddie recklessly commandeer a campus golf cart—with no real-world consequences, of course. Though technically being several decades older than Maddie, the forever-teenage Wally nervously asks her out to the current homecoming dance (“Grave the Last Dance”), which she accepts, leading Maddie to ask Rhonda if ghosts can experience intimacy.
Note: As a former ’80s teen myself (class of 1985), Milo Manheim brings an authenticity to the role I greatly appreciated. In fact, he very much reminds me of several former classmates of mine (not all jocks were arrogant douchebags, contrary to movie/TV stereotypes). If you’re an ’80s aficionado, you haven’t lived till you see Wally leading a colorful singalong of Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit song “Steppin’ Out” (“Grave the Last Dance”).
The ghost with the darkest backstory would be Rhonda (Sarah Yorkin), who was brutally murdered by a trusted school guidance counselor in 1964 (“Dead and Confused”). Rhonda keeps her defensive shields firmly in place with her acidic wit and perpetual snark. Before her murder, the former ‘60s beatnik had a promising academic career and was bound for Berkeley, where she would’ve no doubt been a part of the growing counterculture movement at the time. While openly showing disdain for the mysterious Mr. Martin and his ‘therapy group’ of ghosts, she also secretly longs to leave the purgatory in which she’s currently trapped—to the point of allying herself with Mr. Martin and reversing her own negativity, in order to please the powers-that-be who might allow her to (finally) ascend (“Séance Anything”).
While outwardly cynical towards her ghost group, Rhonda secretly wishes she could join in their playful comradery, though her bitterness is very understandable, given her circumstance. We do learn that Rhonda’s murderous counselor was later arrested and jailed for his crime. It’s through Rhonda’s jaded view of authority figures that the naive Maddie is able to accept that her beloved Mr. Anderson might be corrupt as well (“Dead and Confused” “Friday Night Frights”). When Rhonda and the other teen ghosts experience the powerful ascension of fellow ghost Dawn (a hippie ghost who died in1972), they immediately begin to question Mr. Martin about why they didn’t feel that unmistakable sensation during the recent departure of Janet—a fellow ghost who allegedly ascended the same day as Maddie’s arrival (“Séance Anything”). This suspicion leads them to investigate their Mr. Martin…
Mr. Everett Martin (Josh Zuckerman) is the school’s former chemistry teacher who died in a mysterious fire in 1958, and who now—as the only dead authority figure on campus—acts as de facto counselor to the ghost students, for whom he assumes responsibility. Through Maddie, Charley, Wally and Rhonda’s tenacity, it’s revealed that Mr. Martin has been lying about some very important things, such as the unseen-Janet’s ascension, as well as the mysterious circumstances surrounding Maddie’s arrival to the group. While offering to ‘help’ his spectral students process their deaths, Mr. Martin is also concealing vital information from them. For example, the fact that he started the lab fire in which he died, and that Janet’s ascension is very closely linked with Maddie’s “death” (“Maddie’s Body”).
*****GINORMOUS SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
Note: If the series has a villain, it would be Mr. Martin, though he is less actively villainous, and more complicit in covering up a greater crime—the theft of Maddie’s body by the unseen-Janet, whose soul managed to hijack Maddie’s body in the school’s furnace room. Maddie wasn’t murdered (hence, no body); she’s been possessed by the ghost of Janet. Janet-Maddie has been secretly breaking into various locations around town, including Maddie’s home, to gather some needed items. When Janet-Maddie is spotted driving a stolen truck (in a video taken by Nicole), she tries to run over Maddie’s still-living friends, but is unsuccessful. At the end of the season, we see that Janet-Maddie has left town on a bus, leaving Maddie’s soul in limbo… until the show returns, of course.
Summing It Up
“School Spirits,” much like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Being Human,” and the more recent “Ghosts,” maintains a certain ‘blithe spirit,’ while managing to wring honest, heartfelt and sometimes painful emotion from its core characters, in each of their tragic circumstances. With only eight forty-odd minute installments in its first season, we still manage to learn a great deal about these people (corporeal and otherwise), while the ticking clock of Maddie’s unsolved disappearance never loses focus. The finale also manages to pull off a whopper of a twist that I did not see coming. This out of left-field cliffhanger (“Madison’s Body”) opens a whole new avenue for the show’s mythology going forward, if it’s granted a second season (here’s hoping).
Series creators Megan and Nate Trinrud (whose graphic novel of “School Spirits” is coming out in November), along with showrunner Oliver Goldstick, have created a ghost story with equal servings of humor and pain—much of that pain stemming from the realization that we may not fully know those with whom we’re closest until its too late. Kudos as well to the deeply charming cast, who each bring their characters to life (forgive the pun) with surprising authenticity, while resorting to only a few of the usual time-stamping clichés. These actors make the show’s premise work even better than it does on paper.
Just as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” conceived of a high school built over a literal hell-mouth, “School Spirits” offers high school as a literal purgatory—a place from which we can ultimately ascend, but which also holds many of our deepest and most painful psychic scars from adolescence.
“School Spirits” is well worth a séance or two.
Where To Watch
“School Spirits” is available to stream exclusively on Paramount+. With only eight episodes in its first (and so far only) season, the series doesn’t require a huge time commitment, either. Given the current WGA writers’ strike (which I fully support), I’m hoping that Paramount+ doesn’t give up the ghost on this promising new series.