Heartstopper (Series One) arrives on Netflix on April 22nd.
Based on Alice Oseman’s successful series of graphic novels, Heartstopper arrives on Netflix on April 22nd, and it’s nothing short of a heartwarming delight. But, before we talk about Heartstopper’s importance in the landscape of 12 to 15-year-old TV, let me take you back to an early evening event in 1994 that forever changed kids’ TV drama. Byker Grove was a teatime drama that explored the lives of a group of kids in Newcastle Upon Tyne; Byker had been a pillar of Children’s BBC since 1989, alongside the long-running Grange Hill, tackling numerous social issues along the way. But, in 1994, Byker Grove would introduce a story that no other kid’s drama had dared to explore, a 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 so many 90s 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 5pm and had already suffered my fair share of homophobia, but it was clear that the Byker Grove kiss had changed the landscape of young teen drama forever.
Yasmin Finney and William Gao in Heartstopper ©Netflix/See-Saw
Since that kiss, much has changed in the landscape of LGBTQ+ representation in teen TV drama. However, despite a host of LGBTQ+ dramas aimed at an older adolescent audience, from Love Victor to Young Royals, Europhoria, and Sex Education, LGBTQ+ representation in shows aimed at 12 to 15-year-olds has remained patchy and mainly consisted of characters that are quietly LGBTQ+ and don’t rock the boat. However, this is changing, and it is here where Heartstopper offers a significant leap forward in teen drama.
Charlie (Joe Locke) is the only ‘out’ boy at his school and suffers 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 is lucky that he 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, even with this support, Charlie’s love life remains complicated as his part-time boyfriend Ben (Sabastian Croft) insists on a secretive relationship. But, on meeting the school rugby star Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), Charlie’s life is about to change forever.
Oseman’s books are packed to the brim with love, humour and charm, 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 often leave you baffled. In the safe hands of director Euros Lyn (Dream Horse), Heartstopper holds onto the vibrant storytelling and style of Oseman’s books. Throughout the series, Lyn celebrates the story’s comic book roots through beautiful on-screen animation that reflects the inner feelings of each character.
No TV series ever achieves a five-star rating without five-star performances, and it’s here that Heartstopper truly excels. Joe Locke offers us a stunning central performance as Charlie, beautifully reflecting the journey and experiences of so many LGBTQ+ teens; Locke captures the nerves, longing and apprehension surrounding gay teenage life as he constantly doubts his strength and resilience. However, as the series progresses, Charlie’s confidence blossoms as we witness his journey from a mere boy to a proud young man. Equally transformative is the journey of Kit Conner’s Nick, who is outwardly confident and brave yet inwardly insecure. Connor beautifully grapples with the newfound feelings Nick can’t ignore as he attempts to hide his inner turmoil. Here Conner’s exploration of Nick’s bisexuality is an open and honest discussion that is more than welcome in a world where bisexuality remains clouded by harmful stereotypes.
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 lacks someone to 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 think 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 coming-out journey. This supportive cast displays 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 is a groundbreaking slice of young teen drama offering young viewers a safe, secure and heartwarming exploration of teenage life, sexuality and belonging. It understands and respects its young teen audience from the first episode to the last while encouraging discussion around its key themes, and I, for one, hope there is more to come.
HEARTSTOPPER SEASON TWO
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.