For decades, television encapsulating the Australian teen experience has comprised a short but star-studded list of shows. The programs that epitomised youth for Generation Z – think H2O, Blue Water High, The Sleepover Club and Dance Academy – were already palpably outdated by the time we started drinking, partying, and having sex in the mid-2010s, amid social media and its omnipresent online cultures. Yet, for years, nothing new has replaced them. Despite the prevalence of streaming services and their booming in-house production companies, on-screen depictions of modern Aussie teenagers are somehow scarcer than ever.
Enter Heartbreak High: Netflix’s 2022 reboot of the cult-classic series set in ‘90s Sydney. Raucous, gaudy, and edged with danger, this show is a tribute to coming-of-age in suburban Sydney today, marrying Gen Z’s heightened political awareness and hunger for on-screen diversity with the filthy irreverence and sun-drunken revelry of Australian youth culture.
At first-glance, Heartbreak High bears all the marks of a wannabe edgy teen program, the likes of HBO’s Euphoria or Netflix’s Sex Education. In the first episode, we meet Amerie – a spunky, working-class, cool-girl-turned-pariah of Hartley High, played by Fangirls The Musical alumni Ayesha Maddon. The discovery of Amerie and Harper’s (Asher Yasbincek) ‘Incest Map’ – a wall-length drawing exposing Year 11’s sexual escapades which recalls The L Word‘s chart, or Mean Girls’ Burn Book – catalyses the eight-part-series’ drama, by throwing a prickly group of mismatched students into afternoon ‘Sexuality Literacy Tutorials’, fondly abbreviated as ‘SLUTS’.
Younger Aussie viewers will aim a few predictable critiques at this reboot; Hartley High’s unrealistic lack of a school uniform, for example, with most characters fitted out in trendy, Instagram-ready ensembles and meticulous hair and makeup; or some considerably cliched coming-of-age scenes, like Amerie, Darren (James Majoos), and Quinni (Chloé Hayden) yelling their worries off the top of a building. They might even accuse the showrunners of duping the glamorous, pop-infused, sex-fuelled teen productions that have boomed in the past five years.
But these criticisms aren’t particularly penetrating nor useful for understanding what Heartbreak High actually sets out to do – and achieves, I think, with much leftover to enjoy.
“Heartbreak High is about the generation that we’re making it for,” Sherry-Lee Watson who plays Missy, a queer, Indigenous student, told Honi when we sat down with some of the cast.
“Gen Z has this really cool drive and we’re very vocal about the things that we don’t like. I think we’re indirectly doing that by producing this art. We are giving kids permission to be able to explore these topics… they aren’t just for adults,” she says.
Revisiting high school inevitably comes with no small amount of awkwardness. Initially, the show’s drama may feel exaggerated, the conflict unnecessary, and the characters shallow. But these first impressions are quickly disproved. As we fall further into these characters’ lives, the high school stakes of popularity and relationships suddenly feel very high. Despite the trappings of adulthood — sex, crime, responsibility — it is also clear that these characters are just teenagers finding their feet, and experiencing all the cringe-worthiness that comes with it.
If the original Heartbreak High (1994-96) was lauded for its progressive stance on teen turbulence and contemporary societal challenges, then Netflix’s reboot is truly its modern iteration. The original pioneered by authentically putting Greek, Italian, Lebanese, and southeast Asian teenagers on screen; the reboot expands on this, reflecting the diversity of Australian youth across race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more.
“I think it’s one of the first times that diversity has been represented in such a scope on Australian TV,” says Bryn Chapman Parish, who plays Spider, a Hartley basketball jock, bully, and class clown.
“The norm has been straight white surfers, so I think Heartbreak High is depicting the way the Australian social landscape is changing as well.”
At the same time, it resists making identity an essentialising character trait. Series creator Hannah Carroll Chapman and script producer Megan Palinkas reproduce Aussie slang (cunt, dog, etc.) and youth rituals (see: cemetery piss-ups) with easy and recognisable charm, unifying characters along these cultural lines.
The show’s representation of queerness is also strikingly contemporary. Homophobia and sexism within the school’s walls are no longer utterly pervasive or invincible obstacles, nor do they define the show’s major conflicts. ‘Coming out’ isn’t positioned as the main obstacle in queer teens’ lives, or even compulsory. Queer and non-queer characters dress-up for Mardi Gras, fight over who’s pres to attend, and shriek at drag performances.
“I think that it’s a new way of storytelling when we’re talking about those types of -isms,” Watson says.
“More often than not [on television] one of the main characters is gonna be dealing with [discrimination], and the antagonist is one of the other main characters, and you’ll go through the season with those two figuring out that thing.
“But the pacing in our show is a little bit different, and the priorities have gone to different things. It doesn’t mean that we don’t address [discrimination]. It just means that we explore it in a different language.”
It’s also particularly refreshing to see a world in which bullying and conflict aren’t exclusively driven by bigotry; characters like Spider, the show’s most obvious bully, more so “pick apart people as individuals”, according to Chapman Parish.
“In today’s age as well, racism, sexism, and all that stuff is uncool,” adds Brodie Townsend, who plays Ant – Spider’s friend, and a slightly less reprehensible basketball player.
“There’s no real villain… We’re all just figuring it out.”
James Majoos and Chloé Hayden shine as Darren, a non-binary, queer, black student, and their best friend Quinni, an autistic lesbian who easily charms Hartley High’s students and the audience. Heartbreak High does a tremendous job of casting actors who align with their characters’ identities, producing heart-rendingly sincere performances.
While Darren projects complete self-assuredness, donning bedazzled crop tops, exposed fuschia thong-straps, and a fuck-you attitude at school, they still fight with their parents over using the correct pronouns, have crushes on the wrong people, and doubt their capacity to be loved. Although they may not directly suffer at the hands of cis-heteronormativity and toxic masculinity, the show doesn’t shy away from demonstrating these forces in play today, and how queer joy and acceptance is not yet a universal norm. Bucking the trend of queer coming-of-age narratives, queer characters at Hartley High aren’t forced to grow up too fast due to their sexualities. They are allowed to experience their adolescence in the same way as their peers, developing romances and getting their first jobs (with the added challenge of figuring out their crush’s sexuality).
Quinni is similarly transformative as a rare on-screen portrayal of autism in women, which goes widely undiagnosed and underrepresented due to masculine stereotypes and diagnostic criteria for autism, and womens’ greater inclination to ‘mask’ neurodivergence. This is something that Quinni points out to love interest Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran) when told that she doesn’t ‘seem autistic.’ Having autism isn’t Quinni’s only character trait; like any teenager, she has a crush, falls in love, and has her heart broken. While her experiences are inexplicably shaped by autism, the ableism still normalised and perpetuated even in progressive circles is to blame for the ways being neurodivergent harms her, not autism itself.
Fiction that successfully acknowledges the nuance and harm of discrimination and bigotry, while refusing to perpetuate it by cruelly exaggerating its power for narrative drama, is a rare gem in entertainment, and something to learn from.
In these ways, Heartbreak High proves itself a robust example.
Heartbreak High is well worth the watch. It is heartwarming to see the experience of young people in Sydney – an experience dear to so many – be treated with such tenderness and care, rendered with local talent and a visibly high production value.
As a word of warning, be careful starting the show right before exam season: you might just get hooked.
Heartbreak High is streaming on Netflix from September 14.