The first season of Heartstopper had an unexpected afterlife. The series, adapted from the popular young-adult graphic novels by Alice Oseman, was a hit among its intended audience of teenagers, but it also tapped into the complicated heartache of older viewers. Many LGBTQ+ adults found themselves moved by its portrait of queer adolescence, describing it as what they wished they could have experienced themselves. For many, the wholesome romance between two teenage boys had a bittersweet edge to it.
Its return comes with the weight of expectation on its shoulders. Much of the first run chronicled the will-they-won’t-they between popular rugby player Nick (Kit Connor) and the artier Charlie (Joe Locke), who was bullied after his classmates found out he was gay. But the gentleness of its approach was all part of its charm. Charlie had a group of similarly arty friends, who supported him through the trials and tribulations of coming out, and his crush on Nick had a fairytale ending.
As TV writers know, it is rarely easy to work out what to do after a will-they-won’t-they ends with a they-did. Now, Nick and Charlie are together and so loved up that they spend all of their time snogging, sending each other messages such as “Good morning boyfriend” and commemorating their two-month anniversary. This would be nauseating in any other context, but here it is utterly adorable.
But this is still teenage life; while they have found comfort in each other, pressures come from all around them. Their feelings are overwhelming and, sometimes, these kids begin to fray at the edges.
It’s GCSE time and both boys are distracted by each other. While Nick is out to his mother (an imperial Olivia Colman, popping up occasionally, as before), there are other family members to tell, including a domineering older brother and a distant father. Late in the series, there is an awkward dinner party to add to this year’s tally of awkward TV dinner parties; viewers who have seen The Bear will be relieved to learn that no fish are involved.
In Heartstopper, the peril is usually mild, the conflict resolved fairly quickly. Queer teenagers deserve this idealism. But for all of its softness – it is relatively chaste; when one character goes to a club, they are careful to tell us that it’s an under-18s night – there are complexities to its storytelling. Nick’s coming out has many layers, depending on whom and when he is deciding to tell. The fact that he is bisexual allows for an exploration of biphobia and bi erasure – people suggest that he simply hasn’t figured out that he is gay yet. It examines the effects of coming out, or not, on the other person in the relationship.
The show also deals with the resolution of its central romance by expanding its remit and allowing the peripheral characters more time and space to develop their own storylines. Elle and Tao are considering taking their best-friendship out of the friend zone, while worrying that this would put their closeness at risk. Isaac, responsible for a lovely and understated thread about the importance of books and reading, has a touching self-discovery. Tara and Darcy learn more about the limits of their relationship and what they don’t know about each other outside school. Even Ben, the villain of season one, has the layers peeled back.
Heartstopper has a tendency to plead quietly for understanding, for everyone; this is where its maturity lies. Even the teachers are allowed an emotional life outside the school gates.
It rattles through the teenage standards, such as the school trip to Europe, the end-of-exams blowout and prom. They go to Paris for a few episodes, where there are love bites, breakups and hookups. The issue of sleepovers and room-sharing on trips, and what is and isn’t appropriate or allowed by parents for same-sex couples, gets an airing.
There are also a handful of nods to the real world in the show. One adult character sadly refers to older viewers who might not have had “those beautiful gay teenage experiences”; fans will notice the carefully chosen wording of a certain Instagram post.
I liked season two more than the first run. It is richer, more assured and benefits from throwing its net wider. It is aimed at younger audiences, and that is never forgotten, but it is more subtle than it first appears, while remaining a sweet and lovely thing.
• Heartstopper is available on Netflix