Yesterday’s landmark Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ protections in the workplace is reason for us to breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate. It also reminds us of the need for more mainstream LGBTQ+ representation as we continue the fight for full equality and societal acceptance. As Sam Feder’s Netflix documentary Disclosure released this Friday June 19th makes clear, LGBTQ+ screen portrayals not only influence the way we are viewed by those outside the community, but also how we view ourselves. As a child of the 80s and teen of 90s, I was an avid consumer of film and television growing up and can’t recall watching anything featuring LGBTQ+ characters that made me feel better about myself as I was coming to terms with being gay. In fact most LGBTQ+ screen portrayals made me feel more anxious and worse about myself.Over recent years there has certainly been some notable progress with television series like Glee featuring numerous LGBTQ+ characters, but the 2018 release of Love, Simon, inspired by Becky Albertalli’s novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, was nevertheless a big deal. A major Hollywood studio movie with a star cast, squarely focused on a gay high school kid, in a familiar, highly accessible, glossy, rom com environment, opening wide in cinemas across the US and the world, was a ground-breaking moment in LGBTQ+ representation. The television series spin-off Love, Victor, set in the world established by the movie, which premieres on Hulu on Wednesday June 17th is another significant moment in mainstream small screen representation, primarily aimed at a young audience.
With his family uprooted from the other side of the country to Atlanta, the newly enrolled Creekwood High student Victor (Michael Cimino) is as you might have gathered from the title, not the stereotypical, often side-lined gay best friend, but he is front and centre in his own narrative for all ten episodes. The series revolves entirely around him and his own questioning of his sexual orientation. Early on in Love, Victor we meet the charismatic, confident and handsome Benjie (George Sear) who is openly gay at Creekwood and appears to be fully embraced for who he is. Knowing that Simon, who graduated from Creekwood a year ago, was also accepted by his fellow high schoolers means that it’s not fear of homophobia at school that is preventing Victor from coming out, but more a case of an internal struggle, which isn’t helped by the fact that he believes his religious parents (Ana Ortiz and James Martinez) and certainly his grandparents, won’t accept him for who he is. His father drops in the odd comment from time to time that reaffirms Victor’s fears.
Confused about his feelings and genuinely fond of the beautiful and popular Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson), Victor begins to date her, but it is increasingly clear to us viewers, and deep down to Victor himself, that Benjie, who already has a boyfriend, is more Victor’s type. That’s not to say that there isn’t love between Mia and Victor, and we do invest in their relationship and care about Mia’s feelings. Portrayed with strength and nuance by Hilson, she is a fully fleshed out character, and it never feels like she’s a plot device or tokenised, as the gay best friend has so often been on screen. With all this going on, luckily Victor finds Simon’s Instagram profile and messages him, saying: “Screw you for having the world’s most perfect, accepting parents. For some of us it’s not that easy.” Simon replies and the two strike up a correspondence that lasts throughout the series, and crucially let’s us in on Victor’s feelings, which are often contradicted by his actions. With two tickets to go on a ride at the high school carnival at the end of the opening episode, Victor walks past Benjie and asks Mia to go with him to the top of that iconic Ferris wheel, referencing one of the most memorable scenes in Love, Simon. As he does so, we hear Victor’s voice-over of his reply to Simon, “Maybe you’re right, maybe I do deserve a great love story, but I’m not sure what that looks for me.” Dating the popular girl and being on the basketball team certainly help Victor to settle in to his new surroundings, and his quirky but lovable neighbour Felix (Anthony Turpel), who’s also a Creekwood student, implants himself into Victor’s life, ensuring that he has a new best friend, whether he likes it or not.
The episodic structure allows for character development and some breathing space for Victor’s journey of self discovery and acceptance. At times we might get frustrated with him, as he lashes out against friends and family, but through the adorable Michael Cimino’s sensitive portrayal we always empathise with him and cheer him on to feel comfortable with himself, and maybe fall in love along the way. His correspondence with Simon, voiced by Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson, isn’t just a device to link the series back to the film and the book, but forms a vital element of the show and makes it clear how important it is to have someone to share your feelings with. Fortunately there are helplines, such as the service provided by the amazing Trevor Project in the US, that offer support to LGBTQ+ and questioning youth.
In one of the standout episodes of the series (episode eight), Victor pretends he’s going on a school trip and takes the long bus ride alone to New York City hoping to meet up with Simon in person. Instead, he meets Simon’s boyfriend Bram (the warm and captivating Keiynan Lonsdale, reprising his role from the movie) and their numerous LGBTQ+ roommates; Brooklyn rent is not cheap, as Bram points out. There’s Justin (Tommy Dorfman), Ivy (Friday Chamberlain), and Kim (River Gallo) who throws Victor a little when they tell him their pronouns are they/them as they introduce themselves. Victor awkwardly chimes in with “nice to meet they”. Written by Brian Tanen and directed by Todd Holland, both gay themselves, the episode movingly encapsulates the reassuring concept of It Gets Better. Each of the characters Victor meets in New York has had their own experiences of self-acceptance and they all embrace Victor as a new chosen family member, (literally, with a very sweet group hug), reassuringly letting him know that he’s now part of the broader LGBTQ+ community. Bram’s tour of New York helps breakdown some stereotypes about gay people that Victor has picked up on. As Bram takes him to play basketball at one of the city’s outdoor courts, Victor assumes the guys he’s being playing with are straight, but Bram proves to him there are indeed black gay men and some of them are good at basketball, including Jason Collins, who was the NBA’s first openly gay active player, and appears as himself in the episode. There’s also an acknowledgment of the importance of LGBTQ+ safe spaces, as Bram and his friends take Victor to his first night club, with the high schooler ending up on stage with a fabulous besequined drag queen (Katya). Things might be complicated and uncertain for Victor back in Atlanta, but in NYC he’s been given a glimpse of what his future could look like and it’s a touching, beautifully handled piece of television to celebrate this socially distanced, lockdown Pride month with.
There’s a strong supporting cast, and the series’ writers ensure that all the recurring characters have their own meaningful high school journeys, including Bebe Wood as Mia’s social media and image obsessed best friend Lake and Mason Gooding as basketball jock Andrew, who gives Victor a hard time, but might just have more to him than meets the eye. The series is beautifully shot and lit, with high production values that give it an appealing sheen, making it all the more enjoyable to watch, but without taking away from our emotional connection to the characters. Whether younger audiences members watch this series with their families or alone in their rooms, many will find comfort and hope in Victor’s story, while older LGBTQ+ audience members should celebrate the kind of representation this new generation can enjoy, as it hopefully changes some hearts and minds along the way.
By James Kleinmann
All ten episodes of Love, Victor premiere on Hulu on Wednesday June 17th 2020.
Tuesday June 16th join the #LoveVictorWatchParty with the cast at 8pm PT/11pm ET and watch the premiere episode of Love, Victor live on Twitter. Stick around after our #LoveVictorWatchParty for a moderated Q&A with the #LoveVictor cast at 8:30pm PT, hosted by @TwitterOpen@TwitterTV and @TwitterAlas.