Heartstopper review: In its effort to be affirming, this teen show forgets to be good

Netflix’s sweet celebratory drama about queer teens was a smash hit when it first launched, so it’s a shame that the follow-up series – while still watchable – feels overly sanitised and poorly executed

Nick Hilton
Friday 04 August 2023 12:28 BST
Heartstopper Season 2 teaser

Whether it’s the drug-fuelled parties of Euphoria or the concupiscent trysts of Sex Education, television executives have, of late, been turning school-aged children into pin-ups. If that idea makes you uncomfortable, you might do better with Netflix’s Heartstopper – a chaste look at young love, focused far more on its inclusivity and diversity agenda than any attempt to shock or titillate. Impeccably sugary and entirely absent of bite, Heartstopper is, depending on your perspective, either a palate cleanser or a treacly over-indulgence.

The second chapter picks up exactly where the first left off. Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) are together, and, at last, their group of misfit friends know about it. But not everything is as simple as their relationship: Elle (Yasmin Finney) and Tao (William Gao) are still pining for each other, while quiet Isaac (Tobie Donovan) is starting to feel left out of the great coupling-up. And it’s not like Charlie and Nick (“Chick” or “Narlie”?) are having it all their own way – there’s a miserable new teacher in town, Nick’s brash brother is back from uni, and GCSEs are looming. “We are tragic star-crossed lovers,” Charlie tells Nick, as exams and revision conspire against the teenagers.

Set at the fictional Truham Grammar (and Higgs Girls) Schools, Heartstopper exists in a generic non-urban milieu, bursting with primary colours and noodly indie love songs. The show has been rightly praised, not just for its candour in depicting themes usually unaddressed in teen romances, but for its sweetness. Being gay or being trans is not, here, the misery business that Hollywood thinks. Instead, it’s just another thread in the tapestry of adolescence. “I have a boyfriend,” Charlie proclaims, proudly, to his friends. “Yes, we’re all fully aware!” Tao replies wearily. It’s a shame then, that in this rush to be affirming, Heartstopper forgets to be good.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be good. Maybe it is enough that it exists, as a beacon of hope for closeted children or an instruction manual for their straight friends. But Heartstopper rarely rises above the aesthetic quality of, say, Byker Grove or Grange Hill. Of course, there is no one in Heartstopper’s intended demographic who will remember those shows and therefore understand the insult I’ve just levelled, but the writing and acting could have been carved from vast beams of timber. Like a totem pole or a hand-wrought loveseat. Sanded down to an almost slippery smoothness, it presents a sanitised view of Gen Z and a confused impression of the rest of us. “I’d love a cup of tea,” Charlie tells his floppy-haired paramour. “You’re such an old man!” Nick responds.

Heartstopper’s origins were as a graphic novel, written and illustrated by Alice Oseman who also writes its TV adaptation. Hand-drawn shapes overlay the live action: tiny cartoon fireworks fizz when Charlie and Nick’s fingers touch, electricity crackles when Elle strokes Tao’s hair. It’s a neat way of harking back to its origins. But generally, the show looks bad. It has the over-lit, over-saturated veneer that has typified Netflix’s teen-focused output, from Heartbreak High to XO, Kitty, and a distractingly shallow depth of field. It looks not dissimilar to Hollyoaks, only, for some reason, with Academy Award winner Olivia Colman chewing the scenery.

Being a soap opera for disenfranchised teens isn’t the worst thing in the world. And Heartstopper’s second season makes no attempt to mess with a winning formula. The canvas, inevitably, expands slightly – much of the series is set in Paris, for example – but materially the show is a seamless continuation of its smash hit first outing. Tao and Elle continue to carry the weight of character interest (“I try too hard and I talk too much,” Tao moans) while Nick and Charlie persist at a monotone of wide-eyed earnestness (“It was never going to go perfectly with everyone,” Nick announces of his coming out, with an equanimity the Dalai Lama would aspire to). It’s all nice and watchable, even if it’s not very well executed.

For its target audience, the second series of Heartstopper will be another knockout. Others might need to pause their critical faculties for the duration of these half-hour episodes. Affectionate, blunt, caring, didactic, edgeless, flamboyant: Heartstopper runs the alphabet of adjectives, but never quite makes it all the way to good.

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