Teens in the 2000s looked to acclaimed foreign shows such as “Skins,” “Skam” and “Degrassi” to portray the complexities of teenage life, as do teens now with “Sex Education.” In spite of some struggles, the Netflix reboot of the ‘90s Australian show “Heartbreak High” aims to add itself to this category by introducing coming-of-age and romance themes through a slew of unique characters and their interactions.
In the show, protagonists Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek) create a “sex map” — a detailed graph of all the hook-ups and relationships at their school — which gets exposed to the student body. “Heartbreak High” zooms into their falling-out and their subsequent relationships with other characters involved in the map, who are later forced to attend a mandatory sexual education class called “Sluts.”
The sex map, which was not a part of the original ’90s show, helped modernize the series and introduce a unique and realistic story device. The only issue is that by the third episode, the map becomes largely irrelevant to the show’s plotlines. The show’s focus instead diverges to the sex ed class, attempting to use that setting to address important issues of teen sexuality.
In this domain, “Heartbreak High” flops, especially when compared to its counterparts. It tries to be upfront and honest about sex as in “Sex Education,” but the result lacks a spark — instead, scenes making fun of sex ed classes end up highly dependent on slut-shaming. As an audience member, it’s hard to believe that the sex ed class would be comprised mainly by students involved in the sex map.
But after putting aside this unbelievable plot point, the show is able to shine. While the characters tend to appear exaggerated and loud, they remain uniquely themselves and capture the essence of Australian teenagers in a way that resonates with international audiences.
The way the characters approach their sexuality is also refreshing. The show is not defined by important – but often overused – plot lines about internalized homophobia and traditional coming-out stories. Instead, characters approach their sexuality in a very natural way. While these themes are integral to some characters, like Darren (James Majoos) and Ca$h (Will McDonald), other characters like Dusty (Josh Heuston) and Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran) are more focused on other aspects of their relationships. This is not only refreshing to see on-screen, but it’s also one of the best ways the show stays true to its Gen Z audience.
And most characters, even the show’s side characters, are well-developed. Characters such as Quinni (Chloe Hayden), Darren and Ca$h — some of the show’s best personalities — are not only charming and funny, but also flawed and nuanced. Their stories are told step-by-step and with such care that audiences really understand the complex nature of these teen characters. Quinni’s storyline dealing with autism while also being in a lesbian relationship, as well as Darren’s relationship with his formerly homophobic dad, are great examples of this.
“Heartbreak High” has recently been greenlit for a second season, which means the show definitely has potential to find its footing in its characters and still explore complex themes in a more nuanced way. When “Heartbreak High” tries to take inspiration from newer shows to discuss more modern issues, it does not always succeed. But the characters are interesting and captivating in the same way that the characters of “Skins,” “Skam” and “Degrassi” resonated with their audiences.