Padam. The gently groundbreaking Heartstopper returns to our screens this week to make our hearts skip a beat, launching globally on Netflix on Thursday, August 3rd.
As the eight-episode second season of the BAFTA-nominated and GALECA Dorian Award-winning series opens, we’re reunited with adorable teen boyfriends Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke) the morning after Nick came out as bisexual to his mother Sarah (Olivia Colman), as seen at the end of season one. When Nick steals a private moment at school to share the news, Charlie offers him a congratulatory kiss which leads into a beautiful comic book-inspired montage of the couple spending intimate time with one another and kissing—lots of kissing—that captures their blossoming romance. It’s a heartwarming few minutes of unadulterated queer bliss and one of the highlights of this excellent second season that delivers on the promise of the first and then some.
Nick and Charlie spend every second they can with one another and when their fingers touch or their knees press against each other the electricity is palpable, and—as with season one—rendered in sparingly used animated flourishes that honour the source material and could melt even the coldest of hearts. Especially once Adiescar Chase’s achingly dreamy electronic score kicks in.
Although Charlie wants everything to be “perfect” for him and Nick, it’s not long before there are a few stumbling blocks in their path. Outside of school, Charlie’s parents forbid the boys from spending time together until Charlie has completed his overdue coursework, while at school the pair have to keep things low-key because Nick isn’t yet out to his friends.
Nick’s coming out is a major narrative strand this season and one that is handled with typical sensitivity by creator-writer Alice Oseman and director Euros Lyn, with consistently delicate and nuanced work by Connor and Locke. Having been traumatically outed at school himself, Charlie is patient with his boyfriend and although he would love them to be open about their relationship, he is more concerned that Nick come out on his own terms in his own time. “There’s this idea that when you’re not straight you have to tell all your friends and family immediately, like you owe it to them, but you don’t”, Charlie advises him at one point.
As LGBTQ+ people it can be distressing when we’re “identified” and othered, often before we’ve even got to know and understand who we are ourselves. Unfortunately, Nick’s older brother David (Jack Barton), who is home from university, likely thinks it’s acceptable sibling banter to tease him about having a boyfriend before he’s ready to talk about it, without realising how cruel he’s being. It’s also from his brother that Nick faces the most blatant biphobia.
In stark contrast, Charlie’s delightfully somber and cynical sister Tori (a wonderfully subtle Jenny Walser) always looks out for her brother and is there for him when it counts. Heartstopper isn’t set in a world without homophobia or transphobia (though the worst of it for Charlie and Elle happened off-screen before season one began), and not every parent is immediately accepting. Sarah, though, is a ray of sunshine, radiating unconditional love for her son, beautifully played by Olivia Colman, bringing a warm, rich and lived-in quality to the character. Powerfully, we also see supportive, protective and understanding teachers, who happen to be LGBTQ themselves.
Despite spending so much time together, Charlie and Nick don’t neglect their friends including bookworm Isaac (Tobie Donovan), film buff Tao (William Gao), budding artist Elle (Yasmin Finney), and musical couple Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), with Imogen (Rhea Norwood)—feeling isolated at school—welcomed into the group. Oseman and Lyn skillfully balance meaningful storylines for all of these characters, making them feel as significant as what’s happening with Nick and Charlie, without things ever becoming convoluted. The world of the show is also expanded when Elle applies to art college, making two new trans friends, Naomi (Bel Priestley) and Felix (Ash Self). Meanwhile one of the lead characters, surrounded by talk of romance, begins to recognise and embrace their asexuality, making the show even more inclusive in a way that feels unforced.
Putting the “gay” in Gay Paris, a joint party of students from Truham and Higgs—including all of our favourites—heads to France, with teachers Mr. Farouk (Nima Taleghani) and Mr. Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade) having the unenviable task of accompanying them. Set over three episodes, it is fun to see the characters away from home taking in the Parisian sights, culture, and cuisine, with some beautifully shot sequences in the city of light by director of photography Simona Susnea, and a memorable hotel room game of truth or dare. Another highlight as the season draws to a close is the school prom, and build up to the event, which features a gorgeous cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, a nice nod to the many cherished prom scenes in 1980s high school movies. The rest of this season’s soundtrack doesn’t disappoint either, with music supervisors Matt Biffa and Ciara Elwis returning with another great lineup of emotive pop tracks, including several by French artists during the Paris set episodes.
At the beating heart of Heartstopper are the ride or die friendships. This isn’t a world where bad things don’t happen, but when there is darkness and shade in their lives (rendered literally on screen in animation at times), these friends are there to support each other. It’s the way that they all really care that makes the show so special. In Heartstopper, love between friends is just as important as romantic love, as celebrated in a special moment between Tao and Charlie in Paris when Tao needs it most. (Cue a sweet flashback to the moment Tao and Charlie first met, sitting next to each other in class bonding over a shared love for Radiohead). While Tao and Elle’s friendship is so important to each of them that they worry about damaging it if they embark on something more, resulting in a rather awkward, but very cute, cinema date night.
Oseman’s outlook is unwaveringly optimistic, not because she avoids difficult subjects—this season there’s a carefully handled storyline that deals with an eating disorder, self-harm, and the longterm effects of the trauma of being bullied—but because she focuses on concern and compassion. There’s always hope, like a comment from Isaac to one of the rugby lads leading him to discourage the others from giving Nick and Charlie a hard time about their relationship.
Crucially, Heartstopper doesn’t exoticize or sensationalize the teenage experience. Instead, it taps into the truth of human emotion that we can all feel at any age, relating to love, fear of rejection, heartache, low self-esteem, uncomfortable family dynamics, or grief. Experiences that feel all the more raw and heightened when they are being encountered for the first time, as they are for these characters, but ones that never stop being significant throughout our lives, just more familiar. That’s why so much to relish in this tenderly crafted show for viewers of any age.
Arriving in an atmosphere of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, “don’t say gay or trans” legislation, and book bans, that make this a particularly challenging time for LGBTQ+ youth and their families in the United States and beyond, Heartstopper delivers a potent antidote to hate. Touchingly sincere, with its heart on its sleeve, above all this is a fun, uplifting and healing watch that made my heart soar.
By James Kleinmann
Heartstopper season 2 launches globally on Netflix on Thursday, August 3rd, 2023.