Netflix’s Heartstopper is a sweet, queer coming-of-age drama – but are teens really this well behaved?

The cast might have grown up since season one, writes Patrick Sproull, but the Netflix series has not

Thursday 03 August 2023 06:30 BST
<p>Strictly romantic: Joe Locke and Kit Connor as teens in love in ‘Heartstopper’</p>

Strictly romantic: Joe Locke and Kit Connor as teens in love in ‘Heartstopper’

I’m glad Heartstopper exists. When it premiered last year, it fulfilled a desire to see queer teens be queer teens. Before Netflix’s wholesome high-school drama came along, young people had to look to shows such as Riverdale, Elite and the new Gossip Girl for representation, only to be shown gorgeous 28-year-olds playing a decade younger. Heartstopper, which Alice Oseman has adapted from her extremely popular webcomic series, was made to be authentic, to directly mirror the people watching it. The show returned for season two today and its cast, now newly minted queer stars after season one’s runaway success, look older and more mature. It’s strange, then, that their characters seem frozen in time.

What is particularly sweet about the Heartstopper comic is Oseman’s painstaking attention to the nuances that make up the relationship between her central lovesick couple, Nick and Charlie (Kit Connor and Joe Locke). She began the series in 2016 and Nick, 16, and Charlie, 15, only hit third base last month (yes, really), with the timeline of the comic to date taking place over roughly a year. Heartstopper strives to capture that adorable, chaste honeymoon period early in a teen relationship; all soppy texts, giggling between classes and having your mum pick you up after a cinema date. It’s great as a comic, for those willing to wait out its slow burn, but as a TV series, it’s a lot less rewarding.

Nick and Charlie’s relationship is strictly romantic, to the extent that the lack of under-the-shirt stuff feels unrealistic. We see montage after montage of Nick and Charlie wrapped up in each other on their beds, making out in every spare minute, and the fact that neither of them even raises the idea of doing anything more just rings false. Fans praise the series for being different to a show like Elite, which has more sex parties and incest than you’d expect for a drama about 17-year-old schoolkids, and I’m glad Heartstopper isn’t that show, but surely there’s a middle ground? By sidestepping sex to preserve the rose-tinted fairytale of Nick and Charlie, Heartstopper is denying itself the opportunity to authentically represent Gen Z queerness.

Despite the new series picking up days after season one, the cast has practically doubled in size – that’s what a year’s delay in filming does to a group of 19-year-olds – and so it’s all the more obvious that restricting the Netflix show to the comic’s narrow timeline is depriving these characters of the growth they need. It’s worth remembering, too, that Oseman wrote Nick and Charlie as supporting characters in her debut novel, Solitaire, published in 2014, and Heartstopper originally took place in that period. Everything about the show is a product of the 2010s, a time that held very different views about queer young people, and these differences are most apparent in Heartstopper’s scripts, which retain a lot of the comic’s dialogue. In the medium of television, Heartstopper desperately needs to break free of its source material and plough its own furrow.

The show’s trademark purity strikes an odd note in season two, now that its actors have become queer public figures with millions of Instagram followers. Yasmin Finney, who plays Nick and Charlie’s friend Elle, is an It-girl and advocate for trans youth, Sebastian Croft (Charlie’s bully, Ben) is a fashion muse, Locke is in a Marvel series and Connor is leading YA adaptations. The whole cast is very openly, prominently queer, and having a ready-made batch of young British queer people to represent their generation, at a time when LGBTQ+ rights are a political battleground, is arguably Heartstopper’s greatest gift to the world. But this only emphasises just how uncool their fictional characters are. For example, in June, Locke posted a photo of Connor partially obscuring a sign so that it read “F****t Square” with the caption “Happy Pride”. If Nick or Charlie were to do something like this, the fabric of Heartstopper’s reality would start to unravel and a black hole would open up above the school.

They’re just too safe and smiling and unproblematic. None of them looks like they have TikTok accounts. At one point in season two, a character drinks too much contraband alcohol on a school trip and when she starts to vomit, the other characters don’t take her to the toilet, they take her to the teachers’ room. On the same trip, a game of spin the bottle is criticised because “it’s too personal, someone might get outed”. The Heartstopper kids are oddly conservative and rule-abiding for a generation that is so laissez-faire – especially when it comes to sexuality.

Locke and Connor lock lips in ‘Heartstopper’ season two

Coming out is used as a narrative device across the entirety of season two, with Nick continuously in a bind over who to come out to and when. While coming out obviously still exists, it is increasingly seen as unnecessary because fewer and fewer people cling to labels now, instead embracing fluidity. But in the world of Heartstopper, labels have never been more important – everyone has a stated identity. Sure, it makes it easier for queer fans to gravitate towards a character of corresponding sexuality or gender identity, but it just doesn’t feel truthful. In season two, Nick decides to tell people about being bisexual at an end-of-year party, and his decision to make a point of where and when to come out feels plot-driven instead of organic – a way to stretch the season to eight episodes. In reality, though, many people simply do not care. From my experience, a lot of coming-out moments are now met with indifference, because more of us understand that our sexualities and gender identities are our own personal issues. Coming out is a process inherited from older queer generations, where it was more of a necessity, and it’s odd that Heartstopper relies so heavily and uncritically on it.

On a technical level, Heartstopper’s second season is head and shoulders above its first – there’s a confidence in the performances that wasn’t there before – but it badly needs some grit to give its characters momentum. There is an emotional complexity to teenagers that Heartstopper circumvents, most apparent in a tin-eared confrontation between Charlie and his school bully, and despite some progress in season two, it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of these characters. Later on in the season, a needle drop of Taylor Swift’s “seven” soundtracks the kids hanging out together and partying. It is a very sweet, on-point and of-the-moment depiction of Gen Z girls and gays simply vibing and living their lives. If only the show were capable of sustaining this energy in every episode.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in