“When you don’t figure out you’re gay till your late twenties, you miss out on those beautiful gay teenage experiences.” So laments one of the adults in Netflix’s queer drama Heartstopper, which Alice Oseman adapted from her beloved web comic. It’s a sentiment that sums up the surprisingly widespread appeal of this coming-of-age tale, now back for a second season.
Certainly, it’s not just adolescents who swooned over it; millions of viewers made the show a major hit for Netflix last year, with many saying how much they wished they’d grown up with a Heartstopper. It became a sort of fantastical nostalgia.
It’s also unbelievably wholesome. In stark contrast to the rampant Euphoria and Sex Education, bedroom action is confined to cuddling and kissing (one storyline revolves around – gasp! – a hickey). There are knitted jumpers, cups of tea, and a wildly supportive friendship group. Other than a climactic prom, it’s all reassuringly British.
In fact, it’s GCSEs that cause problems for infatuated pair Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor): when Charlie neglects his coursework, his parents limit their visits. They can’t be together at school, either, since Nick is still navigating his coming out. Charlie, who was viciously bullied when he was outed, is angelically patient.
At times, Heartstopper feels more like a step-by-step guide than a drama, or even a rebuke. There are multiple conversations about how Nick doesn’t owe anyone this coming out information – which feels very pointed after Connor was hounded into publicly confirming his own bisexuality by obsessive fans. This second season makes it abundantly clear what not to do, or say. Nick’s homophobic older brother (an effectively ghastly Jack Barton) sneers that Charlie turned him gay, and many people assume that “sporty” Nick must be straight. Other issues, like eating disorders, are assiduously highlighted, along with the communication problems between lesbian couple Tara and Darcy, and the dilemma faced by Tao and transgender bestie Elle when they develop romantic feelings. Self-worth is constantly reaffirmed.
However, Heartstopper is strongest when it ditches the preaching and simply immerses us in the teenagers’ raw experience. The animation returns (when Charlie and Nick’s fingers entwine, fireworks crackle and pop) but it’s hardly needed since Locke and Connor have such tender chemistry. Connor also beautifully handles the fraught appearance of Nick’s absentee father – plus he speaks French, which should cement his internet heartthrob status. Olivia Colman continues to be luxury casting as Nick’s kindly mum, while Rachael Stirling makes a memorable appearance in the latter stages, and Nima Taleghani is an excellent addition as a gruff teacher.
There’s a precious indie soundtrack once again, which, along with the shimmering visuals, particularly during a dreamy trip to Paris, and the emoji-packed Instagram messages that appear on screen, runs the risk of whimsical over-earnestness (Wes Anderson, referenced here, is definitely a touchpoint for series director Euros Lyn). But if Heartstopper is, ultimately, escapist, is that such a bad thing? There are more than enough depressing queer stories in the world. Whatever your orientation, it’s hard to resist this gentle gem.
Heartstopper series 2 is available on Netflix now