Heartstopper (Series One) arrives on Netflix on April 22nd.
Based on Alice Oseman’s successful series of graphic novels, Heartstopper finally arrives on Netflix on April 22nd, and it’s nothing short of a heartwarming delight. But, before we talk about the importance of Heartstopper in the landscape of drama aimed at 12 to 15-year-olds, let me take you back to an early evening event in 1994 that changed kids’ TV drama forever. Byker Grove was a teatime drama that explored the lives of a group of kids in Newcastle Upon Tyne. This was a show that had been a pillar of Children’s BBC since 1989, alongside the long-running Grange Hill, tackling numerous significant issues for kids.
However, in 1994 Byker Grove would introduce a story that no other drama aimed at young teens had dared to explore, a teenage gay crush that would lead to a kiss on the cheek between a character named Noddy and his best mate Gary. The kiss was sweet and innocent, encapsulating the hidden feelings many boys kept locked away from public view as they questioned their sexuality. But that one kiss on the cheek would spark a backlash that demonstrated the homophobia at the heart of British life, with over 10,000 complaints and a range of tabloid stories suggesting the BBC was trying to turn kids gay. I was seventeen the year that kiss aired at 5 pm and had already suffered my fair share of homophobia, but it was clear to me that the Byker Grove kiss had changed the landscape of young teen drama forever.
Yasmin Finney and William Gao in Heartstopper ©Netflix/See-Saw
Much has changed in the landscape of LGBTQ+ representation in teenage drama since that groundbreaking kiss. However, despite a whole host of LGBTQ+ dramas aimed at an older adolescent audience, from Love Victor to Young Royals, Europhoria and Sex Education, LGBTQ+ representation in drama aimed at 12-15-year-olds has remained patchy and mainly consisted of characters that are quietly LGBTQ+. However, this is changing, and Heartstopper offers us an outstanding and essential leap forward in young teen drama.
Charlie (Joe Locke) is the only ‘out’ boy at his school and has suffered his fair share of homophobic bullying and jibes from the other boys. As a result, the school art room has become a bolt hole when things get tough, with Mr Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade) offering lunchtime guidance and support. But Charlie also has supportive friends, from the free-spirited Tao (William Gao) to transgender Elle (Yasmin Finney), who has just moved to the local girl’s school. However, Charlie’s love life is also complicated as his part-time boyfriend Ben (Sabastian Croft) insists on their relationship being kept a secret from everyone at school. However, on meeting the school rugby star Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), Charlie’s life will change in ways he could never have predicted.
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Oseman’s graphic novels emit love, humour and charm, with each volume rooted in the trials and tribulations of early teen life, from changing friendships to the first gentle sparks of love and desire. As you flip through each page, each conversation, inside joke and nervous fumble represents teenage life as it truly is; an exciting, daunting and confusing mosaic of experiences that sometimes make sense and sometimes leave you baffled and unsure. In the safe hands of director Euros Lyn (Dream Horse), Heartstopper holds onto the love, vibrant storytelling and graphic style of Oseman’s books. Throughout the series, Lyn celebrates the story’s graphic novel roots through animation that reflects the inner feelings of each character.
Meanwhile, the language and structure of Heartstopper volume one are kept firmly in place, and while this may at times feels slightly clunky, it ensures the characters remain authentic to Oseman’s vision throughout. But no TV series ever achieves a five-star rating without five-star performances, and it’s here that Heartstopper truly excels. Locke offers us a stunning central performance as Charlie, beautifully reflecting the journey and experiences of so many LGBTQ+ teens. Here Locke captures the nerves, longing and apprehension surrounding gay teenage life. He constantly doubts his strength and resilience as he navigates love, friendship and school life. However, as the series progresses, his confidence blossoms as he realises he deserves stability and security and is stronger than he thinks.
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In contrast, Kit Conner’s Nick is outwardly confident and brave yet inwardly insecure and unsure as he grapples with the newfound feelings he can’t ignore. Nick is the polar opposite of Charlie, his outward strength hiding his inner turmoil. Here it’s Conner’s exploration of Nick’s bisexuality that stands out. After all, bisexuality remains wrapped in stereotypes and assumptions, from “they just want it all” to “they don’t know what they want.” Nick’s confusion in navigating his relationship with Charlie is wrapped in these assumptions, leading him to question his motives and love constantly. In the landscape of young teen drama, this gentle, open and honest discussion on bisexuality is not only welcome but a huge step forward.
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Meanwhile, Gao’s Tao is brash, bold and intelligent, yet fearful of the future as he sees his friends moving apart due to new relationships and loves. He sees himself as Charlie’s protector yet equally lacks someone who can protect him. Then we have Ben, the secretive part-time boyfriend played brilliantly by Sabastian Croft. Here we have a young man unwilling to accept his feelings and emotions due to the peer pressure surrounding him but happy to play with the feelings of others. Many young gay men will have met a ‘Ben’ at school; a boy who uses them to experiment but never ‘comes out’ nor identifies as bisexual, curious or gay.
At this point, you may be thinking Heartstopper is all about the boys, but trust me, it isn’t. Elle (Finney) helps young viewers explore the experiences of trans young people as she settles into her new girl’s school with all the fears of isolation and discrimination that come with such a monumental change. At the same time, Tara (Corrina Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) navigate their own coming out journey. This is a supportive cast who display genuine friendship and trust in every scene, the sparks between them lighting up the screen.
Kit Connor and Joe Locke in Heartstopper ©Netflix/See-Saw
Heartstopper’s embrace of young teenage drama makes it a standout slice of TV. After all, here we have an LGBTQ+ drama aimed squarely at 12-15 year-olds, one that never shies away from big topics, including bullying, coming out, friendships and relationships, through a delicate and honest lens that every young teen can relate to and understand.
Heartstopper is a genuinely groundbreaking slice of young teen drama. It offers young viewers a safe, secure and heartwarming exploration of teenage life, sexuality and belonging that never feels the need to dive into the more adult world of shows like Love Victor. Heartstopper knows and respects its young teen audience from the first episode to the last while encouraging discussion around its key themes. I only hope there’s more to come because this is one story that can’t just end after a single series.
Heartstopper is a genuinely groundbreaking slice of young teen drama. It offers young viewers a safe, secure and heartwarming exploration of teenage life, sexuality and belonging that never feels the need to dive into the more adult world of shows like Love Victor.