Many modern teen dramas populate their episodes with sex or drugs, and intimacy often becomes secondary. But Heartstopper prioritises the softer moments: the sparks between anxious fingertips and omnipotent eye contact. In season two of Alice Oseman's soul-warming LGBTQ+ series, sex is mutedly referenced and never an immediate issue; the only drug consumed is vodka, smuggled for a Year 11 trip to Paris (scandalous!).
Is the prudishness realistic? This straight 28-year-old critic probably can't make a verifiable judgement. But the less intense approach, aiming for a younger audience, allows superior emotions to bloom larger than hedonism and transgressive behaviour.
Darker and hornier fields of interest are important to discuss, but Euphoria has them thoroughly covered. Heartstopper is an idealistic contrast, an escape, a commune of lovely characters protecting themselves and each other from the hurt of the world. Key to this is the pressure and prejudice involved in coming out, providing a teen drama that’s as emotionally complicated as it is unabashedly sweet.
Left to right: Nick (Kit Connor), Charlie (Joe Locke), Isaac (Tobie Donovan), Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney). Photo: Netflix
The reserved and openly gay Charlie (Joe Locke) has got the guy: popular rugby lad Nick (Kit Connor), who’s still in the process of coming out as bisexual. Charlie is unerringly supportive (‘there’s no deadline’), but he's excited about showing off Nick as his boyfriend and not hiding in supply rooms for secret kisses.
But they needn’t conceal themselves when hanging with their wonderful friend group. Trans artist Elle (Yasmin Finney) and cishet cinephile Tao (William Gao) stumble through a wonderfully awkward will-they-won’t-they dynamic. The yin-and-yang lesbian couple Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) endure an ambiguous period after an accidental ‘I love you’. And the endearing bookworm Isaac (Tobie Donovan) goes on his own journey of sexuality we won’t spoil here.
Even teachers Mr Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade) and the newly introduced Mr Farouk (Nima Taleghani, hilariously stern) break out of their romantic shells. This is quietly evocative considering the discriminatory Section 28 law that forbade ‘promoting homosexuality’ in schools, repealed in 2003.
Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell). Photo: Netflix
There's too much to cover in a series of mostly half-hour episodes. You can binge them in an afternoon and then lament the waiting time for season three. Inevitably, even with Oseman's brilliant and believable constructions, the side characters become neglected. Charlie’s emo-ish and protective sister Tori (Jenny Walser) is so memorable, but there’s not nearly enough of her. Nick’s relationship with his largely absent father Stephane (Call My Agent’s Thibault de Montalembert) and toxic older brother David (Jack Barton) barely penetrates the surface level. And despite a season-long build-up, Darcy’s hidden background is explored too rapidly.
However, the central relationship between Nick and Charlie is so wholesome, the chemistry between Connor and Locke so warm, that the others in their orbit are like delightful bonuses.
Nick is open about his struggles with potential biphobia while Charlie hides anxieties created by traumatic bullying. Oseman tackles both issues with overwhelming heart and pathos, never seeking vengeance for their misery but also discarding forgiveness. Much like the refrain of not owing anyone anything applied to Nick’s coming out, the same can and should be felt about apologies from abusers. Spirited, thrilling empowerment suffuses all these characters.
Oseman never swerves the upsetting downsides of being queer and coming out, but she prefers more often to embrace the nicer elements, the parts that make it all worthwhile. The intolerance is there, but so is the love.
Heartstopper, season 2, is available on Netflix from Thursday 3 August.
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03 Aug 23 – 03 Aug 24, ON NETFLIX
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