Pop Culture

‘School Spirits’ Is a Surprisingly Fresh Take on Ghostly Murder Mysteries

Rhonda, Wally, and Charley all look at Maddie in School Spirits.

In School Spirits, the new teen drama on Paramount+, high school student Maddie (Peyton List) faces an unlikely task: solving the mystery of her own murder. When I heard the premise, I was skeptical. Didn’t I already read about a ghost girl haunting her friends in The Lovely Bones? Didn’t we cover beautiful undead detectives in iZombie? But my skepticism was misplaced. After watching the first three episodes provided to reviewers, I’m really into this show.

When the series starts, Maddie finds herself in the school gym, watching an assembly about her own disappearance. She’s soon introduced to a support group for the surprisingly large number of students who have died on campus, led by the kindly Mr. Martin (Josh Zuckerman). In the group, students from various eras—the ’60s, the ’80s—process their feelings about being dead while school life goes on around them. They can interact with objects at the school, even eating and drinking snacks and coffee in the teachers’ lounge, but their actions don’t affect the physical world. They can’t leave the campus until some undetermined catharsis allows them to cross over to the afterlife. High school has become, for these poor souls, a literal eternity.

The premise is interesting, but where the series really shines is in its relationships. Maddie is caught in the middle of two worlds: her new, dead companions, and her surviving friends trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance. Both groups give the series space for some lovely character studies. There’s Charley (Nick Pugliese), Maddie’s mentor in the afterlife, who has unfinished business of his own on campus. There’s Simon (Kristian Flores), one of Maddie’s best friends, who struggles with his grief after her disappearance. As the various dead and living characters drift in and out of the story, we get snippets of their hopes, fears, dreams, and regrets, making for an intriguing tapestry.

The story gives the cast lots of opportunities to bounce off of each other. List is a good straight woman to set against the quirky personalities in the support group, like the sardonic beatnik Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin) or the puppy dog-like jock Wally (Milo Manheim). The adults are fleshed out, too, carrying much of the show’s themes of addiction and recovery.

As for the whodunnit aspect of the story, there are two mysteries at play: the identity of the murderer, and the location of Maddie’s body. The murder mystery is standard fare, with a couple of likely suspects emerging in the first couple of episodes. The question of Maddie’s body is much more interesting, though. She can’t remember the murder, and her position in the afterlife proves to be unusual when she finds she has a power none of the other dead students know about. What actually happened to her? Why is her blood in the boiler room? Watching the first few episodes, I found that I didn’t actually care who committed the murder—I just wanted to know where her physical body was. (I have one really wild theory, which is probably wrong, but I’ll save that for after the show premieres.)

School Spirits may owe a big debt to the genres it pulls from, but the strength of its storytelling and the vividness of Maddie’s world carry the show. The first three episodes drop on March 9, and I can’t wait to see more.

(featured image: Paramount+)

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