Netflix’s Heartbreak High Is the Deliciously Messy Teen Drama We’ve Been Missing in the Genre

Think about it: Can you name a recent series that gives off Dawson’s Creek, The O.C. or even Pretty Little Liars energy? Shows that offer incredible melodrama, characters you simultaneously love/can’t stand and baffling storytelling choices in a high school setting? Not considering the supernatural ones — if only because their scope tends to reach too far beyond high school — we can count this type of all-engrossing youth drama on one hand. The teen soap output from The CW, Freeform (née ABC Family) and MTV has become all but nonexistent.

OK, we’ll give you Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty (even though we hardly see the inside of a classroom throughout the show). And Netflix is keeping the genre afloat with a few shows like Sex Education, Heartstopper and Never Have I Ever. Still, there’s something about these entries that feels just a little too carefully manufactured, like most shows that are built for a streaming platform. Though they pull from some of the genre’s best qualities, none have hit quite like their predecessors.

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That is, apart from the wonderfully messy Heartbreak High, whose sophomore season dropped on Netflix earlier this month.

Loosely inspired by a ‘90s show of the same name, the Australian series incorporates the genre’s classic characteristics while putting a fresh, diverse and current spin on them. We’re not necessarily after a carbon copy of our favorite teen dramas from the ‘90s to the early 2010s; after all, TV needs to change with the times. However, we are looking for something that, like those older series, is perfect in imperfection. It needs to provide just the right amount of cringe and ridiculousness alongside shocking twists, strong ‘ships and compelling characters. Heartbreak High checks all of those boxes.

Courtesy of Everett Collection (x2); Prime Video; The CW
Courtesy of Everett Collection (x2); Prime Video; The CW

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The premise: Best friends Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek) created a “incest map,” which details all of the hookups between their fellow students, in a hidden stairwell of their Sydney-based high school. After Harper freezes her out for reasons unknown, Amerie takes the fall when the rest of the school discovers the drawing. The students are placed into a mandatory sex-ed class, which further hinders Amerie’s efforts to climb back up the social ladder. Meanwhile, she and the rest of the Harley High gang navigate love, friendship — you know the drill. However, the show also explores topics like sexuality, gender, race, neurodiversity and the aftermath of trauma, reflecting the broad scope of the teenage experience. So far, it’s also included an overarching mystery in each season; the first focuses on the question of why Harper broke off her relationship with Amerie, and Season 2 introduces an anonymous antagonist hell-bent on ruining Amerie’s life. (Does that ring a bell, PLL fans?)

Heartbreak High Netflix Why You Should Watch
Heartbreak High Netflix Why You Should Watch

Covering so many bases and characters and weaving in all of the high school drama elements we know and love is a lofty goal for an eight-episode-per-season show. But Heartbreak High manages to do it all with care, verve and a healthy dose of unhinged-ness, the latter of which is key to its appeal. Somehow, HH is not in any rush to get where it’s going, either, which is a welcome contrast to many other shows that use the binge model.

You’ll get some tonal whiplash, to be sure, but isn’t that a hallmark of the teen drama experience? In Heartbreak High, you hear that “oh no” song from TikTok (you know the one) at the exact moment a character realizes that they might be pregnant. (Yes, really.) In the same episode, a nail-biting confrontation takes place between Chook (Tom Wilson), eshay leader and drug dealer, and Ca$h (Will McDonald), his childhood friend who wants to sever ties. The series is hard-hitting, touching on issues like police brutality and ableism, but it’s also consistently lighthearted and laugh-out-loud funny. James Majoos’ Darren is an especially bright light, and it’s no wonder why several scenes of theirs went viral on TikTok. (Exhibit A and Exhibit B. If those alone don’t convince you to tune in, we don’t know what will).

High school dramas truly shine when they spend time with the group as a whole — but only if they give the characters the right amount of individual attention, too. Heartbreak High has mastered the ratio of character focus, so when the teens do all come together to interact, it’s at its peak. In Season 2, there’s a particularly memorable school camping trip (which takes a trippy turn, if you catch our drift) where the ensemble is in especially fine comedic form. Their chemistry is natural and palpable, and you can tell they’re having fun with it. Even with its short runtime, it feels like we’ve known these characters — whether it’s Chloé Hayden’s bubbly, neurodivergent Quinni; the loveable-yet-frustrating Amerie; or Thomas Weatherall’s Malaki, Amerie’s absolute sweetheart of a love interest — far longer than we’ve seen them on screen.

Sex Education and NHIE got four seasons each, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that Netflix green-lights a third season. After you watch the show, it’s impossible to not want to spend more time at Hartley High.

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