'Heartstopper' - second season continues the hit teen romance

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 22, 2023
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Joe Locke and Kit O'Connor in 'Heartstopper' (photo: Netflix)
Joe Locke and Kit O'Connor in 'Heartstopper' (photo: Netflix)

After almost universal critical acclaim (a 100% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and a staggeringly successful global audience, "Heartstopper" was guaranteed a second season on Netflix. With testimonies on how the series helped young people come out or their parents how to support their queer child, "Heartstopper" became a TV cultural moment, like Barbenheimer was this year's movie cultural touchstone.

In light of such incredible reception, the pressure to follow up must have been intense, especially since TV history is littered with series that had stunning debuts and then hit a slump in their sophomore season.

However, creator/writer Alice Oseman has defied the odds and season 2 is a winner. It's a bit different from last year, less whimsical yet still effervescent, but it feels like an evolution with the beloved characters changing and growing, older and wiser. There's a willingness to tackle new ideas and themes, while somehow retaining the winsome qualities that made "Heartstopper" perhaps TV's best gay teen romance ever.

Joseph Balderamma, Joe Locke and Georgina Rich in 'Heartstopper'  

Catching up
Briefly, season 1, based on Oseman's graphic novel, saw two students at the all-boys Truham Grammar School in England, Charlie Spring (Joe Locke), harassed and bullied, forced to come out and Nick Nelson (Kit O'Connor), presumably straight rugby player, who meet and are attracted to each other.

A dark shadow was cast by Charlie's first clandestine relationship with closeted Ben (Sebastian Croft), who had refused to acknowledge him at school, fearful of being outed and resented Nick taking his place. Charlie and Nick had a close support system with Charlie's best friend film buff Tao (William Gao), his close confidante artist transgender Elle (Yasmin Finney), as well as lesbian musical couple Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), and quiet, bookish Isaac (Tobie Donovan).

Season 1 resonated with so many viewers because while it dealt realistically with issues teens faced, it did so through an optimistic hopeful lens. Previous gay teen stories were usually conflict-based and melodramatic, willing to shock and titillate. Being gay has its challenges but there's joy to be found, so even if there are difficulties, in the end everything will be okay.

So much news about the queer community has been negative in the past year and somehow without denying these struggles, "Heartstopper" gave comfort, that despite all the toxicity in the world, there's also loveliness and people can be compassionate and good. The series was the gay equivalent of the warm, kindness that Apple + TV's "Ted Lasso" served to the larger TV community stressed out and disillusioned by the pandemic.

The relationship between Charlie and Nick is still central, beginning with the day after Nick came out to his mother (the incomparable Olivia Coleman) when he shares the news with Charlie and we have a montage of the couple kissing each other throughout the summer enjoying the bliss of their blossoming romance.
While last year focused on Charlie becoming comfortable with his gay identity and whether or not to pursue romance with seemingly unattainable Nick, this season centers on Nick, who isn't sure he's ready or comfortable to reveal his new identity to the rest of the school, especially his rugby teammates.

Joe Locke and Kit O'Connor in 'Heartstopper' (photo: Netflix)  

Coming out
In the hiatus, actor Kit O'Connor, due to fan pressure on social media, was forced to come out as bisexual after holding hands with a co-starring actress from an indie film in which he was starring. Joe Locke had already come out as gay last year. So cleverly Oseman has Charlie —after his trauma of being outed— exhibiting great patience with Nick that he come out on his own terms in his own time, despite Charlie's desire to be open about their relationship.

Nick's journey will be circuitous with some setbacks, including having to deal with his straight, jerky older university brother David who teases him mercilessly and his absent divorced estranged father. The running joke of the season, a sly commentary on real life events, is when someone will say to him.

"You're gay?," Nick will reply, "I'm bi, actually." The series subtly relays how distressing it can be for queer people forced to name themselves before they understand who they are themselves.

Nick and Charlie face a stumbling block when Charlie's parents forbid the couple from spending time together until the failing Charlie passes his school exams. Because Nick isn't out at school they have to maintain a low profile there. They must also decide if they are ready to have sex together, especially after Charlie gets a very public hickey on his neck from Nick.

This second season expands its scope with more storylines about their circle of friends. Tao, finally rid of possibly the worst haircut in TV annals, realizes he has romantic feelings towards Elle and they both have to bridge the awkward gap between friendship and a deeper affectionate connection, as well as Elle's decision whether to attend a faraway art college.

Tara tells Darcy she loves her, but Darcy isn't able to reply similarly having to deal with her homophobic mother. Isaac has to sort out his complicated feelings for new gay student James, a library assistant, who shows interest in him. Imogen (Rhea Norwood) has gotten over her season 1 ill-fated crush on Nick and is dating the toxic Ben.

Olivia Coleman and Kit O'Connor in 'Heartstopper' (photo: Netflix)  

Always have Paris
All these narrative arcs will come to a head in the high point of the season with three episodes situated in Paris during a school trip, a welcome break from Truham, We're treated to stunning views of the kids racing up the Eiffel Tower stairs and touring The Louvre, being chaperoned by two teachers, the lovable gay Mr. Ajayi and stern new science teacher Mr. Farouk, who may or may not have their own dalliance.

Nick will reunite with his father, who only seems interested in his rugby-playing. Nick debates how to introduce Charlie to him. Paris has never looked more shimmering or romantic, so beautifully shot, you know why it's called the City of Light. All the issues facing the characters will culminate in the final episode occurring at the Prom where whatever hiccups arisen are mostly resolved, or not!

Like season 1, Nick and Charlie's romance is largely a chaste one, though there are teasing intimate scenes of intense kissing leading audiences to think this might be the moment, but... I won't spoil it for you, though their chemistry remains sweet and wholesome. What the series executes so well is the complexity of that transition to young adulthood and how to sort out contradictory feelings, yet the characters are allowed to be teens with both its fun and awkwardness.

Joe Locke and Kit O'Connor in 'Heartstopper' (photo: Netflix)  

Intense emotions
Season 2 retains the graphic designs conveying the character's intense emotions, such as whenever Tao touches Elle electric sparks fly or lots of hearts and stars flutter whenever Nick and Charlie are kissing. Fortunately, this cutesy, at times hokey, gimmick is not as prevalent this season, perhaps a sign of the character's maturity. Another highlight is the series message that while romantic love is important, so is friendship.

What is also clear is that storms lie ahead for some of the characters, especially Nick and Charlie, with hints of an eating disorder, self-harm, and the PTSD of being bullied, but one suspects even with darker themes on the horizon, whatever happens will be dealt with compassionately and with an appropriate level of levity, retaining the series' heartwarming qualities but not at the expense of wearing rose-colored glasses.

"Heartstopper" still remains the dreamy love story we all wish we had encountered as queer teens, but which we can vicariously experience through these characters. All the actors are first-rate, but special commendation goes to O'Connor, who artfully displays the tension of knowing who you are, but not yet having the courage to make that announcement to the rest of the world.

I have only one minor quibble. While she has a bit more screen time this season, the fantastic Olivia Coleman has little to do, which seems like the waste of a brilliant resource. Please, Alice Oseman, give Nick's mom her own story in season 3.

There are many queer stories and being queer is ultimately different for everyone. Yet, as "Heartstopper" shows, LGBTQ people need to see that happiness, love, and peace are available, no matter what other struggles they might be facing or negativity thrust their way by society-at-large.

It's the ordinariness, the quiet moments —not the sensationalism characteristic of so many other queer teen tales— that makes the series so revolutionary. With all the hate facing the LGBTQ community, "Heartstopper's" uplift and buoyancy, even euphoria, is a welcome and healing antidote. We need its sense of wonder and cheerfulness.


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