“Heartbreak High” Series Review (Ep.1 to 8)

The last thing I expected from the trailer was to actually enjoy the show.

I generally steer away from series that revolve around high-school experiences because of a lot of the drama depicted (that I really don’t relate to), so I wasn’t sure what to make of the series when I watched the trailer. At first, it reminded me of an Australian version of Mean Girls with a side of the British young adult series Sex Education—a lot of teen drama related to love, sex, drugs, and alcohol.

Now that I have watched it, I realise I may have been way off.

While the 2022 reboot of Ben Gannon’s 1994 Australian TV series does have all of the above, Heartbreak High (2022) is undoubtedly more than just those things. The trailer, as well as The Guardian’s description of the show, were enough to pull the wool over our eyes. What we got instead was a series with representation that wasn’t there just for the sake of it—it dealt with so much that I was surprised by how they did it in the span of fewer than ten episodes.

Created by Hannah Carroll Chapman, Heartbreak High highlights the story of Amerie Wadia (played by Ayesha A. Madon) and her fallout with her best friend Harper (Asher Yasbincek), the reason for which remains a mystery for most of the eight episodes that make up the first season, each about an hour long. Set in Hartley High, along with the backdrop of the ‘Incest Map’—a map these two characters had created to keep track of all the dirt on their classmates, mostly accurate with a few exaggerations/lies mixed in—gives it a very Mean-Girls-like edge to it. However, it’s what they do with this and the mess that it creates that makes it stand out. Just like Amerie, we’re left in the dark until the very last episode, which takes a turn for the worse.

What I like about the series is the range of issues it covers, from safe sex, STIs, pleasure, slut-shaming, and understandings of intersectional feminism, to mental health, disability, gender and sexual identities, ACAB, and racism, especially against Australia’s First Peoples. Through Malakai (Thomas Weatherall) and his encounter with a racist cop, the trauma he goes through as a result of that, and Jojo Obah (Chika Ikogwe) losing her job as an English teacher due to a false accusation even before its investigation, we get to see a view that is different from what Australia shows us of its multiculturality through other shows we’re familiar with. Their encounters with the police disturbed me quite a bit, reminding me of conversations I’ve had with people I know who’d moved to other countries without being aware of identity politics and racial violence that migrants, as well as indigenous people, face in many countries.

The disability representation in this series was the first thing that reeled me in, with an autistic character being played by an autistic person in this series. Quinni Gallagher-Jones is an absolutely delightful character; it felt great to see her on-screen with everything—from her stimming, her special interests, her two wonderful dads, and her queer, lesbian self to her dealing with ableist comments from everywhere. Even when they are from the person she’s dating. And words like these hurt even more when they’re from people we care about.

The series does a great job navigating through issues of sex, sexuality, and sexual and gender identities. A lot of drama arises from the Amerie-Harper-Malakai-Dusty bunch—messy if you ask me. But I love how Heartbreak High uses them to talk about sexual pleasure (especially that of a woman), threesomes, safe sex, and messy relationships. Portrayals of misogyny through Dusty (Josh Heuston) and Spider/Spencer (Bryn Chapman Parish) and their odd gaslighting moments, their demeaning locker-room talk with the other jock characters involving Malakai, and most importantly, Spider’s outburst in the SLTs in a later episode highlight how important intersectional feminism is to create safe spaces for everyone.

With all the queer characters we’re getting here, I’m assuming it’s going to receive (or is already receiving) backlash for being too ‘woke.’ Strains of this are dealt with through Darren’s mother and her partner, who find it a ‘handful’ to keep track of their pronouns, or anything related to their gender. It’s interesting to see how his father undergoes growth when Darren stays with him, especially when he tells them that they are a beautiful human being who deserves to be loved.

This ties in nicely with the characters mentioned above and the harmful examples of ableism and allonormativity in the series. Don’t get me wrong—I am not knocking the series for its representation. On the contrary, it’s examples like this that show the other side of things; in other words, something you shouldn’t be doing and/or saying to people from marginalised communities. Darren’s relationship with Cash (Will McDonald) and how it’s portrayed show how allonormativity—the assumption that all people experience romantic and or sexual attraction in the same way—can be harmful and be the cause of trauma to all the parties involved.

Darren’s misunderstanding of their situation with Cash stems from his insecurities of not being loved as a nonbinary person, as well as internalised ideas of allonormativity, which society has been propagating forever. Things become more apparent to us only when there are open mentions about it, whether it’s through the secret ‘pleasure’ ballot organised in the Sexual Literacy Training Classes (also known as SLTs/‘Sluts’ and are central to the plot) or when talks about it with Darren later on in the series. The last episode does give me hope, and I’d like to see where they take the conversation on allonormativity and aphobia—the hatred propagated against aromantic and/or asexual people—in the second season of the show (that’s right, everyone, we’re getting another season!)

The series also throws light on how harmful ableist ideas can hurt everyone, especially the disabled person in question, through the relationship between Quinni and Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran). Sasha makes assumptions about Quinni’s disability based on how she presents—and we all imagine how terribly that went, considering how good Quinni’s at masking. While it looks like she makes up for it in the beginning, by the end of the series, we realise how ableist she is when she makes it all about herself and blames Quinni for “pulling the autism card” (as if that’s a thing). I wonder how this will be sorted out because I’d rather not have her ending up with Sasha after what the latter did—I’m sure it had a lot of neurodivergent people in tears.

Overall, I was pretty impressed by the series, mainly because it was different from the Mean Girls expectations I initially had. Some of the characters proved to be amazing, from supportive family members like Cash’s Nan (she really is the coolest) and Quinni’s caring dads, Darren’s dad who underwent quite a growth (and hopefully continues to grow in the later seasons) to the interesting Queer and/or disabled main characters the series has given us. The production is top-tier, the representation is good (here’s to hoping it continues to keep the conversation going), and ideas around mental health and ableism are centred to an extent—it’s a good watch, despite the high-school drama setting (personal bias, sorry). I like how the series hasn’t played up purity politics, and its conversations about aphobia, asexuality and/or aromanticism didn’t involve sanitising the series from the chaotic character portrayals and ideas, whether sexual or not. If anything, it’s crucial to have a setting discussing sex, pleasure, and sexuality to deal with how allonormativity works in our everyday life.

I’m not sure if I’ll rewatch it a hundred times like I usually do with Asian BLs, but this series is definitely worth the buzz surrounding it. You can stream it on Netflix—the contract renewal for another season makes it all the more worthwhile!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Krishna’s Sidenote-

Heartbreak High has been renewed for a second season!

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