Is Heartstopper really as good as people are saying?
“He looks like a golden retriever” someone remarks early on in Heartstopper. Actually the whole series is like a golden retriever; eager to please, full of energy, a lot of fun and very cute. Is it really as good as the reaction to it suggests though?. It is definitely one of 2022’s buzz shows, though that said the ratings are not as strong as the reaction. Indeed another shows with a larger audience has been cancelled so it seems that in the streaming age online buzz counts nearly as much as eyes on screen. Yet when serious critics are calling it one of the must see dramas of this year then there must be something about Heartstopper. Plus it seems churlish or mean to begrudge such a joyful production its prominence amongst the darker, sombre fare that seems to comprise most of our most popular series these days. It’s not the most original take on its subject matter and some of the scenarios will be familiar yet just like a golden retriever it will defy you not to like it!
Of course it is difficult to think of different ways of framing common dramatic situations which is why when you get a bit older a lot of things you watch seem like programmes or films you’ve seen before. You know what the totems of the tale will be so it is to the credit of the makers of Heartstopper that they’ve avoided at least some of them. Rather than try to wring angst from every dramatic development and make our gay subjects perpetually pining and miserable the show seems to have created something we’ve not seen in a while- the generally sunnily disposed happy teenager. There’s nothing urban or edgy about this show, its not Skins or even Grange Hill. It’s wispy and cloud like and just maybe this is what people want right now. The world lately seems to be lurching from one crisis to another so to see such an optimistic drama is, for thirty minutes an episode at least, a salve for troubled souls.
However the show does take a while to shake off adult preconceptions that this is simply too fluffy, too unlikely. It is determinedly middle class, its characters have no financial worries (when one mentions running out of money you know he’ll be getting more tomorrow) and everyone appears to have supportive, open minded parents. The (unseen but heard over the PA system) headmaster of the school is Stephen Fry for goodness sake! It’s supposed to be a grammar school but with it’s neat pupils, sporty inclinations and school orchestra is a whiff away from being a public school. Oh and Nick’s mum is Olivia Coleman!
The opening episode sets up the premise that for reasons unexplained class forms at Truham Boys school will now include different year groups. This means that Charlie Spring, returning to school after being the victim of some bullying due to having come out last year, is allotted a seat next to rugby captain Nick Nelson. A year older and sporty, he would seem to have nothing in common with arty Charlie and yet from the very first time they exchange a “Hi” (this is a repeated thing along with one or the other apologising) there seems to be a connection. A bit later having seen that Charlie is a good runner, Nick suggests he join the rugby team as a reserve (!) They become closer, indeed though it is Charlie who becomes infatuated with Nick, it’s the latter who seems to encourage them to see more of each other. Over the first two episodes they start to behave like students in American high school films visiting each other to do homework or even creating snow angels when it snows in a way that it never really does in the South. Some of this seems premature and if the series has an initial weakness it is that it allows Nick’s behaviour to change too quickly. The two act like they are secretly dating before they actually are.
Inevitably they reach the moment of the Big First Kiss. The place is a sprawling hotel that the very rich kid Harry has booked out for his party – and its a suitably grand place for a grand gesture. Equally important though is a scene a few minutes earlier when Nick watches as gay couple Tara and Darcy dance with abandon so clearly enjoying themselves and he obviously wishes he could have that. The next morning when Charlie thinks he’s ruined everything Nick runs around to see him in the pouring rain. Without an umbrella! It must be love ! So they agree to date albeit keeping it a secret and as you and I and everyone knows such secrets never get kept for too long. Their coy courtship reminds me of the tentative romances of historical dramas and this may be part of the appeal of the series. Just like those costume dramas continue to draw large audiences with their hidden passions and distant looks so Heartstopper is a modern take on that. "Why are we like this!" exclaims Charlie on two occasions aware of their tentative behaviour. The series does not have an entirely soft centre though. Both Nick and Charlie have deeper issues lurking, especially Charlie who's low self esteem is evident on many occasions. There are hints towards what will almost certainly be a season two storyline that further explores that.
While its central narrative is familiar the show is not without its own different takes. The archetypal quirky gay friend becomes a quirky straight friend, the bully characters are not always full on aggressive and the teachers we do meet are written as proper people rather than shrill disciplinarians. Coming out is generally accepted and while there is still prejudice little of it strays beyond cruel words yet this can cause problems especially on social media. The show’s visual motif is a collection of delightful comic style graphics that float about the screen whenever there’s a connection between characters. These include butterflies, leaves, birds or crackling energy and add additional character giving the series its own distinctive signature while also referencing the story’s comic strip origins. Incidentally if you Google Heartstopper these things appear floating around your screen!
Kit Connor and Joe Locke are sensational in the lead roles. The former as Nick successfully mixes the sporty exterior with a more thoughtful side and you can see the struggle the character is having internally. The more experienced of the two (he was a young Elton John in Rocketman) Connor allows Nick’s more vulnerable side to emerge slowly. Considering this is his first major role Locke is a revelation, his more emotional character is a bundle of energy and you root for him from the start. Together they are terrific handling every scene with energy and authenticity. Some screen romances, of whatever kinds, seem somehow fake or lack chemistry. With these two it sometimes feels like we’re watching two real people falling in love. Crucially, as mentioned earlier, they spend a lot of time laughing and enjoying themselves though also apologising! It would be quite alright if the whole series was just them but we also have a wonderful cast of other characters.
In no particular order, Ben Hope is a sort of former boyfriend of Charlie's; who will openly refuse to acknowledge they know each other while secretly stealing kisses behaviour that has Charlie thinking the same thing might happen again. Played with a snarl by Sebastian Croft he quickly becomes the character viewers really hate (in real life he’s the opposite by all accounts) and makes the most of his relatively short scenes. The series might just be a little too cute without some snark and bite which is provided by Charlies’ mate Tau, played by William Gao who is very funny as “token straight friend”. Tau nonetheless frets about the break - up of their friendship group and seems unwilling to simply ask people about things preferring to worry about them. Lesbian couple from neighbouring girls school Tara Jones (Corinna Brown) and Darcy Olsson (Kizzy Edgell) are a riot and bring energy aplenty. In a way they are an aspirational couple for Charlie and Nick.
School bully and rich kid (well richer than all the other rich kids) Harry Greene (Cormac Hyde-Corrin) is portrayed as more of a stupid figure than someone to be truly feared. Yasmin Finney’s Elle remains the most enigmatic of the characters, her positive vibes (like she doesn’t want to watch sad films or she often thinks others are being “a bit dramatic”) clearly hides deeper feelings but it seems these will be revealed in future seasons. The character is something of an old soul, somehow above the minutae with which the others are obsessed. Though underused, both the lively Imogen (Rhea Norwood) and the wry Isaac (Tobie Donovan) are interesting characters whom I’d hope we may see more of in season two. Also, there’s sympathetic teacher Mr Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade) who deserves even more screen time for his dry comments and Charlie’s enigmatic sister Jane played by a poker faced Georgina Rich. Oh and there's Olivia Coleman. She’s not in it a lot (she only did two days filming) but when she is brings a presence like her scene in episode seven when she says to Nick “Charlie’s a really special friend isn’t he” and after Nick agrees you can tell from her slight change of expression that her character realises the implications. There is a coming out scene between them in the last episode and it’s as sweet and honest as you imagine it would be.