I keep hearing friends rave about a new Netflix show called Heartstopper. Seriously, the praise seems to be unanimous and unqualified, whether coming from 45-year-old doctors in Brazil or undergrads in New England. This show resonates with people and has become an instant hit, with near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes scores, and topping Variety’s “Trending TV” chart week after week. So when my husband and I headed up to Lake Arrowhead for a few days, one of the first things we did was binge-watch the entire season.
I have to admit, during the first minutes of the first episode I groaned inside thinking, “Oh Lord, not another ridiculous high school show.” To my delight, I soon realized that the cast wasn’t a bunch of full-fledged adults pretending to be 16. Nor did the characters embody adults’ dreams of high school by leading largely unrealistic, wild lives of sex, partying, and drugs. Instead, I was quickly charmed by Heartstopper’s shameless sweetness and innocence, its realistic focus on teenage angst, and how appropriate the show is for viewing by actual teens. For years to come, Heartstopper will encourage and inspire LGBTI youth with relatable storylines and representation that at least bears some resemblance to their lives; that tells them that they’re normal and not alone. This is a show that will take adults — doubly so for those of us who are LGBTI — back to the trials of high school as well as the beautiful, intense and sometimes painful experience of discovering love.
Before I go any further, here are a few disclaimers. First and foremost, this review will contain SPOILERS for the first season. If this is your first time reading a Unicorn Scale, you may want to find out what our metric is all about here.
Heartstopper began life as a webcomic series written and illustrated by British author Alice Oseman and released on her Tumblr and on Tapas in September 2016. Since then, it has grown into a best-selling series of children’s/YA graphic novels with the final installment due in 2023. The series tells the story of Charlie Spring (Joe Locke), a gay schoolboy who falls in love with his school’s star rugby player, Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), after they are assigned to sit next to each other in form (yes, it’s all very British). Along the way, Heartstopper also explores the lives of Charlie’s and Nick’s friends: Elle (Yasmin Finney), Tao (William Gao), Isaac (Tobie Donovan), Tara (Corinna Brown), and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), all set within a diverse universe at the fictional Truham and Higgs secondary schools.
What I Liked:
Wow. This show is a breath of fresh air. I remember being a bi teen during the peak years of homohysteria during the AIDS pandemic, absolutely desperate for any representation or relatable stories on TV or elsewhere. The best we had (and please remember this was pre-internet at a time with next to no LGBTI resources for youth) was the original Beverly Hills 90210, a situation that speaks for itself. Having access to shows or comics like Heartstopper would have saved me years of confusion and crippling self-loathing.
This show makes great use of the adage “in the particular is contained the universal,” that is to say that the minutiae of life can be deeply relatable to a wide variety of people. For all our many differences, so much of the human experience is the same no matter our background. Heartstopper draws on its origins as a comic to literally show us the sparks we feel the first time we’re finally able to touch hands with another person we fancy, or the near overwhelming excitement when our crush unexpectedly takes a moment to wipe our face clean.
It directly explores the experience, felt by students around the world, of not knowing where to sit every day at lunch, the brutal popularity contests within school culture, and the existential fear of becoming a social outcast because we’re not cool enough, athletic enough, or because we carry the stigma of being LGBTI. Heartbreaker also explores the centrality of social media in the lives of teens today, as they carefully curate not only their public posts but also the DMs they send one another.
To my surprise and delight, towards the end of the season, Nick starts exploring the topic of bisexuality. What had seemed like a typical gay coming of age story takes a new turn when he and his mom (played by Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman) stay home for movie night. They watch Pirates of the Caribbean, which Nick was apparently obsessed with as a kid. We soon learn why when he experiences a moment of highly-relatable “bi panic” watching a scene in which Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly are on full (rated G) display in all their youthful beauty. Next thing, we see Nick Googling bisexuality and watching videos that give the audience a literal Bi 101.
After realizing and accepting he’s bisexual, Nick is able to shed the pain and confusion of trying to figure out why he’s attracted to another boy if he’s also attracted to girls, and he’s able to fully embrace his romantic bond with Charlie. It’s a detail that most monosexual (not bi) viewers will probably miss, but it’s one that almost every bi person can relate to. We tend to come out later than gays and lesbians because society tells us we have to fit into one of two binary boxes: gay or straight. Since we’re neither, it can take a while to gather the courage, confidence, and self-understanding to go against the grain, see ourselves as bi, and come out as such. Contrary to the stereotypes, many of us (including yours truly) come out as gay or lesbian first, before we realize there is an option that actually describes who we are.
Bisexuality in this series isn’t a punchline, it isn’t a big plot twist, it doesn’t drive the drama, and it isn’t somehow mysterious, unknowable, or complex. Nor is bisexuality used to show that a character is somehow wild or a sexual glutton. It just is. And characters use the word bisexual confidently and unambiguously. Bisexuality is presented as something as simple and understandable as both heterosexuality and homosexuality. And that is refreshing. And rare.
In other words, this is a full-fledged, top-notch bi representation.
In the last few minutes of the final episode, Nick comes out to his mom, telling her that he’s in a relationship with Charlie, that he likes boys, and that he still likes girls too. His mom, who would get a gold star from PFLAG for her response, calmly lets him speak then thanks Nick for telling her and apologizes if she’s ever made Nick feel like he couldn’t tell her these things about himself. Her next comment addresses the biphobic tendency many people have of questioning if coming out as bi is a copout by offering that Nick doesn’t need to tell her that he’s attracted to girls if he isn’t. And now we get the big payoff that those of us who care about these things have been waiting decades for: Nick responds “No, It’s definitely not just guys, I’m uh... It’s called bisexuality. If you’ve heard of that.”
Hallelujah. Praise the Maker! We actually have a show where people use the word bisexuality to accurately describe attractions that are not limited by sex or gender.
In a nod to those of us who care to read up on our LGBTI history, Nick’s mom replies “I have heard of that [i.e. bisexuality]. I wasn’t born in the 18th Century!” You see, the term bisexuality has been with us in its current form since the 19th Century. It has meant “regardless of gender” for around 200 years and has been used to describe sexual orientation since 1892. And yet, this world abounds — even within LGBTI spaces — with people who haven’t a clue what bisexuality means.
Olivia Coleman is the mother every bisexual needs (needed) when coming out.#Heartstopper— Alex Hernández Muro (@alexhmuro) May 7, 2022
What I Didn’t Like:
Heartstopper dances along a very thin line between sweetness and reading like an after-school special. At times, it comes dangerously close to feeling like it’s checking off boxes, touching on serious subjects such as bullying and homophobia in a way that would benefit from a bit more depth. And yet, I think that deeper exploration could take away from the charm of the series. It’s remarkably digestible and easy to watch. With so much of our media serving up what could be described as trauma porn, it’s nice to have a show that takes a different approach.
Heartstopper is remarkably close to perfect. It serves us pure high school romantic fantasy, a world in which the L, G, B and T are all present, centered, and joyous. As one reviewer noted, watching Heartstopper is an act of therapy for LGBTI people, teen and adult alike. It depicts important parts of queer coming-of-age beyond sex and partying that we rarely get to see on TV. And, of course, one of the main characters is a likable bi male who uses the word bisexual and educates audiences along the way.
This definitely deserves our top score of 4 unicorns.