Mean Girls 2

Mean Girls 2 debuts tonight on ABC Family at 8 p.m. Eastern.

In the glorious tradition of Legally Blondes and Bring It On: Fight to the Finish comes Mean Girls 2, the latest made-for-TV spin-off from the folks at ABC Family. Though touted as a “sequel,” Mean Girls 2 is, in actuality, an insipid and horribly botched rip-off of the original. To use a metaphor that Regina George might understand, it’s the Canal Street version of a Fendi bag. While the individual parts of Mean Girls 2 are obviously derivative of the original, they’ve been assembled so haphazardly that there’s really only one way to describe the end result: fugly.

This version traces the same trajectory (vaguely-exotic-new-girl-befriends-weirdos-and-tries-to-destroy-popular-girls) as Tina Fey's acid comedy but with dramatically different (read: unfunny) results. The proxy to Lindsay Lohan’s Cady is Jo (Meaghan Martin), a tomboy raised by her father, a race-car mechanic. Jo prefers designing skyscrapers and fixing carburetors to girlier pursuits, though she grieves the loss of her mother when she was a baby. Her father’s job meant the family had to relocate frequently, and as a result, Jo is a “loner with a highly evolved defense mechanism.” In a textbook example of telling-not-showing, this is conveyed to the audience through voiceover. There’s little evidence elsewhere, aside from a few leather cuffs and boyish plaid shirts, of Jo’s purported rebellious streak.

It’s senior year, and Jo has landed at North Shore High School, home to a clique of popular girls known as—wait for it—the Plastics. Presumably, this is the same school where Regina George and Gretchen Wiener once terrorized the masses, though no mention is ever made of any of the Plastics 1.0. (Copyright issues, perhaps?) Jo dreams of going to her mother’s alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and becoming an architect. The only trouble is her tuition fund has dried up, meaning Jo will be doomed to a state school unless she can come up with another solution.

Naturally, an answer quickly materializes. Despite being cute, rich and thin, Abby Hanover (Jennifer Stone) is, unaccountably, North Shore High’s biggest loser. Jo gives her a ride home from school one day after some goons paintball her Porsche (because teenagers always target the kids with sports cars first, right?). Abby’s father, Sidney (Donn Limkin), has made a fortune hocking meat juicers and robotic mops in infomercials. He thanks Jo for helping Abby, then makes her an offer she can’t refuse: If she’ll pretend to be friends with his daughter, he’ll pay her tuition. He’ll even throw in the cost of textbooks, just as a thank you.

Jo dedicates herself to the task at hand, and quickly befriends Abby. She also rejects overtures from the Plastics, who sense that the blonde, waifish Jo might have the makings of a popular girl. You see, Mandi Weatherly (Maiara Walsh), the leader of the Plastics 2.0, hates Abby for being just slightly richer than she is. To make matters worse, Jo is falling for Mandi’s step-brother, Tyler, overlooking his overt sexism and seeing only his cavernous chin dimple. Mandi seeks revenge on Jo, who in retaliation puts Mandi through a series of public humiliations.

By standing up to Mandi, Jo unwittingly becomes the most popular girl in school, forming her own clique known as—wait for it—the “Anti-Plastics.” (At this point, the writers appear to have given up altogether.) With no explanation at all, Jo starts to tease her hair, wear spiked heels to school, and wonder aloud about the sugar content of her soft drinks. Naturally, Jo’s Faustian bargain with Abby’s father comes back to haunt her in predictable ways, and, like Lily Bart and Henry Hill before her, Jo precipitously falls from grace.

Of course, none of this makes much sense. Mean Girls 2 fails at what would seem to be the most basic of tasks: effective plagiarism. Several plot points have been cut-and-pasted directly from the original, but, presumably out of some half-baked attempt at “originality,” the context and order of events has been changed. As a result, all the familiar story beats are here, but the narrative has no logic, and the characters’ motivations are murky at best.

What Mean Girls did so well was show how the pull of the in-crowd can be both repulsive and irresistible, how the dizzying high of popularity can drive smart, decent people to do and say cruel things. The film worked because, like an undercover cop, Cady had to infiltrate the Plastics, adapting to their ways, and in the process, she slowly became "the enemy.” Unlike Cady, who had to sacrifice her integrity to get in good with the Plastics, Jo just becomes popular being herself. You know, wearing leather cuffs and building birdhouses and whatnot; then one day she’s dressed like Clash from The Misfits.

Mean Girls 2 makes no attempt at sociological analysis, opting instead for a double helping of the cartoonish sabotage that was the weakest conceit in the original. Only now instead of high-calorie snack bars and peppermint foot lotion, these mean girls wield industrial adhesive, rotten eggs, and a bottle of something called “Easy Upchuck.” (What, no itching powder?) They aren’t masters of social manipulation and psychological terror; they’re just practical jokers. Unlike the compelling Regina, Mandi is a shrill and one-dimensional villain; her cruelty offers no vicarious thrill, and it’s driven only by material jealousy, not insecurity.

Lest we blame everything on a rotten script, there are many culprits to blame for this, possibly the most tedious and pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. With her blankly pretty face and spindly limbs, Meaghan Martin lacks presence on the most fundamental, physical level. She looks more liable to blow away with the next stiff wind than to strike fear into the hearts of her classmates. Martin’s wooden delivery does nothing to make lines like “I.M. Pei, for instance, designs the most amazing buildings,” any more convincing. Of course, it’s difficult not to compare Martin to her forebear. In Mean Girls, Lohan convincingly transformed from guileless outsider to haughty popular girl and back again; never has her descent into a substance-abusing designer of trampy leggings seemed more of a waste than now.

Director Melanie Mayron (yes, as in thirtysomething) also deserves our opprobrium. Rather than eking out a fresh visual approach, Mayron rehashes the original’s most memorable shots, like the slow-mo sequence of the Plastics walking down a crowded school hallway. It’s as if she thinks that by doing this often enough, we won’t notice that we’re watching a different movie. Mayron is also incapable of realizing the script’s trace amount of comic potential: Abby’s father slips into infomercial sales-pitch mode in his everyday speech, but even this vaguely amusing quirk fails to land. In a reprisal of his role as the exasperated Principal Duvall, Tim Meadows has the movie’s only funny line (“We’re aware that kids who move around a lot become serial killers or actors,” he tells Jo) but otherwise, the talented comic is totally adrift in this rudderless mess of a movie.  There’s more to say about the myriad ways this insipid knock-off fails the original, but at a point, it’s best to heed the words of Regina George. To paraphrase: Stop trying to make it happen. It’s not going to happen.