One of my favorite lines from All About Eve is not, actually, one of the more popular or famous (infamous?) ones. It comes when Margo and Karen are stranded in the car on the way to the train station so Margo can make her curtain; they’ve run out of gas and Lloyd has gone for help (Margo doesn’t know Karen has drained the tank deliberately to punish Margo for–well, for being right about Eve all along), and they start talking. Margo turns on the car radio and music plays, and Bette Davis makes a patented Bette Davis sneer-face and turns it off, snapping, “I despise cheap sentiment.” I love that line, and use it whenever it feels appropriate.
I do feel it important to say that I don’t despise all sentiment, just the cheap, sappy kind. I used to love It’s a Wonderful Life, frankly, until I started really thinking about its message and how truly dark it actually is; now I love to fuck with people who still love it by called it the darkest Christmas noir ever put on film. But The Princess Bride and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast are still two of my favorite movies; and earned sentimentality, that arises from strong character development and a good story, still moves my heart and can make me cry a little bit.
Yes, I cry at movies and television shows; there are even songs that make me tear up a little bit, too. I know I project that I am deeply cynical–probably because, well, I am deeply cynical. People and systems have disappointed me far too many times for me to have a glowing opinion of humanity as a rule; my friend Victoria often accuses me of being a misanthrope–to which I always reply, “And I’m not wrong to be.” I do prefer to believe that most people are decent at heart, but there are just so many examples on the other side of the scales that it’s very hard to keep believing in the kindness of random strangers. (Just look at our current society and what is going on in the world even as I type this.)
So, I went into Heartstopper not expecting an awful lot. It looked cute from the brief previews I’d seen, and so I knew already it was about two teenaged boys falling in love and their friend group. I’ve often been disappointed by queer representation in films, television shows, and sometimes in books as well; I figured, despite the enormous popularity of the graphic novels this show was based on, that this would yet again be the case.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
I can honestly say I can’t remember the last time I was so completely charmed by a television series with gay characters–if ever. I have always been harshly critical of fictions targeted toward queer youth for any number of reasons; the primary one being a serious lack of authenticity in the ones I’ve read and/or watched. Some of them were so blatantly unrealistic I couldn’t even get past the third page, and even the ones I managed to hold my nose and get through were incredibly problematic and disappointing. I never got into Love, Victor because it seemed…well, phony to me. I can’t give any examples of why I reacted that way to the show, and believe me, I wish I could have watched more of it so I could (I may go back and do so at some point). So when I saw the first previews for Netflix’ Heartstopper, it looked adorable…but as I said, didn’t get my hopes up. I checked into it before watching and learned that it was based on a series of graphic novels that started as web cartoons, written by Alice Oseman, and I thought, well, be supportive and give it a chance. We were just coming off season 5 of Elite, which had thoroughly shocked and surprised me with the amazing storyline and arc they’d given the character of gay Patrick (who literally stole the entire season out from under the rest of the cast; it was a stunning performance by Manu Rios), and the thought that I might have another terrific show with gay characters and a romance was too much to pass up on. So, the Saturday before we went to New York, Paul and I queued up Heartstopper and…
We were both enchanted.
Heartstopper is just so sweet and lovely I felt my Grinch heart grow three sizes while watching it.
I even happy-cried several times per episode; so it’s like Ted Lasso and Schitt’s Creek in that way, but it also touched me deeply. I kept thinking, over and over again, how marvelous this show was; how beautifully written and acted and produced–and how lovely this would have been for fifteen year old me to have seen.
It’s like I don’t know who I am anymore.
It really is just so damned sweet and charming.
The queer rep I’ve seen in y/a novels–romance or not–has generally not been satisfying or engaging; I tend to raise my eyebrows and roll my eyes a lot–if I can even make it all the way through. But this….this was different somehow. Maybe because the actors playing the roles were the actual age they were playing? They just looked so young and innocent and sweet….which was perfect for this kind of show, really. It does make a difference when teenagers are played by teenagers, as opposed to actors in their twenties.
Charlie is the main character, who was accidentally outed by one of his friends the previous year and has suffered some bullying, which has left a few marks on his psyche. But it’s a new school year, some older boys put an end to the bullying, and he’s starting over in a way. On the first day of class he finds himself sharing a table in Form (what I guess we would call homeroom) with Nick, the big star of the school’s (Truham) rugby team. As they continue sitting next to each other, they slowly but surely start becoming more and more friendly with each other; enjoying each other’s company, etc. Charlie is also involved in a toxic relationship with Ben–who will meet him privately to make out, but only on his terms and when he wants it, and is also seeing a girl–that Charlie is trying to get out of. Ben tries to force himself on Charlie one day… Nick stops it, and then their friendship blossoms even more, with more texts and Nick proving himself to be a really good friend to Charlie, who is also developing a crush on Nick.
Nick is also starting to have feelings for Charlie that go deeper than “being mates”–so we see him looking stuff up on line about being gay.
Kit Conner, who plays Nick, plays the role so pitch-perfectly–the confusion of having feelings you’ve never had before, which upsets your entire worldview and everything you think you know about yourself (it wasn’t my experience, personally, but I’ve heard this from countless others) and being terrified to express it; afraid of what will happen when you admit it to yourself and start admitting it to others, and what it all means. He’s falling in love with Charlie, but what precisely does that mean?
His mother is brilliantly played by Olivia Colman, who is just such a treasure. One of the sweetest scenes in the entire show is after she’s met Charlie, and she comments on the friendship, “You’re more you when you’re around him. You’re different around your other friends. With Charlie, you’re you.”
Yes, it brought tears to my eyes–especially watching the emotions of what she means being processed in Nick’s mind and the lovely smile when he realizes that Charlie really sees him…and what THAT means.
It was also lovely seeing their relationship develop and blossom and grow–and that everyone is supportive and excited for them for the most part (yes, there’s some homophobic bullying, but not as much as one would expect, but it’s also dealt with strongly and doesn’t really hang over the show, either). There’s a young lesbian couple as well whose development and growth mirrors that of Nick and Charlie; a wonderful young trans character who has left the boys’ school and is now at the girls’ school, and a burgeoning romance for her as well–which I hope develops more in the next season.
But most importantly, the show is about acceptance and the sweetness of falling in love for the first time–and the usual obstacles that keep our adorable young couple apart aren’t heavy drama, and their suffering is more along the line of does he really like me? Am I his boyfriend?
It’s sweet, and adorable, and charming. As I said, I happy cried any number of times throughout the show…and the soundtrack is fantastic.
In fact, I am so obsessed with Heartstopper that the day after we watched I bought all four graphic novels and read them the following afternoon.
The show follows the books pretty closely, but they are just as adorable in the graphic novels as they are on the show. The graphic novels take a bit of a darker turn in the last couple of volumes than I would have liked, but the dark stuff is handled not only optimistically but in the same charming, loving, kind way the rest of the story is told.
Highly recommended. I am probably going to rewatch, too. It made me all warm inside, and shows like that–Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso and now Heartstopper–are necessary, especially in these dark times in which we live. Thank you, Alice Oseman, for the books, the story, and the characters. Highly recommended.
I could write about this show and the books forever, and may write more later…but I am going to go ahead and post this now.