Tuesday, July 25, 2023

REVIEW: Netflix's 'Heartstopper' Remains a Poignant and Uplifting Examination of Young Queer Love and Anxiety in Season 2

Netflix's Heartstopper - Season 2 Review

Nick and Charlie navigate their new relationship; Tara and Darcy face unforeseen challenges; and Tao and Elle work out if they can ever be more than just friends. With exams on the horizon, a school trip to Paris and a prom to plan, the gang has a lot to juggle as they journey through the next stages of life, love and friendship.

One of the most endearing aspects of Netflix's live-action adaptation of Alice Oseman's Heartstopper is that it's a show about teenagers made for teenagers and their families. A lot of times in this particular genre, the narrative is set in high school but the storylines are very much catered to adults. That tactic has its own appeal. However, shows like The CW's Riverdale, HBO's Euphoria and Netflix's √Člite are meant to terrify people by how teenagers scandalously behave in today's world. So many outrageous things happen that would make it reasonable for anyone to treat high schools with suspicion. It's depressing because it's an exaggeration of the emotions the storytellers are feeling right now instead of reflecting the true struggle of the high school experience. In Heartstopper, it is very much an exploration of innocent crushes, resilient friendships and anxiety over school coursework. Its hook is centering queer stories in this setting. Moreover, it has universal appeal because everyone can relate to stories of love, family and friendship. Those impulses are apparent in every story direction here. It's all delivered in a package filled with anxiety and discovering one's sexual identity. It covers difficult subject matter. It does so with such care and affection for these characters. Pain and trauma define their lives. They all have had difficult experiences growing up. That has shaped them into the people they are today. It's not always easy. However, they have the tools and the friends to help along the way should they trust them enough with the truth. That's the core narrative direction of the second season.

Despite Nick Nelson (Emmy winner Kit Connor) quitting the Sports Day rugby match to be with his boyfriend Charlie Spring (Emmy nominee Joe Locke), not everyone is suddenly aware of their relationship. The pair decided to start telling people at the conclusion of the first season. Their group of queer friends already knows - which expands to include Imogen (Rhea Norwood) as well as newcomers James (Bradley Riches) and Sahar (Leila Khan). Nick came out to his mum as well. That trend continues. It's incredibly obvious to those who pay attention. The way Nick and Charlie behave around each other is so sweet and loving. They are infatuated by one another. They want to spend all their time together. Love is the only rational explanation for their behavior. So many people don't make that connection because they can't fathom Nick being anything other than straight. That's a big hurdle to overcome. Coming out is much more complicated than Nick or Charlie realized. The stress of how and when to tell people shapes the stories. Some have better reactions than others. More members of Nick's family are introduced - including his older brother David (Jack Barton) and his father Stephane (Thibault de Montalembert). Everyone has certain expectations for how this conversation should go. It doesn't always happen according to plan. That applies to Nick and Charlie's relationship as well. They have big ideas about what they can do together. And yet, they are both still awkward teenagers whose emotions sometimes get the best of them. Their expectations don't line up with reality. That threatens to derail them at certain points. However, the season never seriously considers breaking the two of them up. That narrative uncertainty was done by the end of the first season. They are committed to one another. They still have plenty of engaging and rewarding stories both together and separately.

The big events of the season include the stress of final school year exams, planning and attending prom, and a weeklong trip to Paris for the Truham-Higgs students. Those are the physical actions that provide the season with its overall shape. Thematically, the season explores what it means to be in a relationship without losing sight of one's own individuality. These friends support and nourish each other no matter what. They have plenty of options to go to in order to talk about their problems. That's never the source of tension. Instead, it's all about finding the willingness to share some dark and uncomfortable truths even when that terrifies them. The first half of the season is focused on several characters bottling up how they truly feel. They don't want to express themselves truly out of fear of how the people they love will react. In these caring and loving relationships though, emotional maturity has to develop so that people can see the differences between actions and words. Plenty want to project a feeling that everything is fine. That isn't always the case. That's okay too. It simply requires a massive amount of trust in order to admit that. Those realizations come during the second half of the season - which is a remarkable string of episodes. The emotions are just as poignant and moving as ever. Nick, Charlie and their teenage friends don't always have the right answers. They don't know what to do in every single situation. Sometimes they figure it out by themselves. Sometimes they notice patterns that require a larger conversation to be had. The trust is present to ensure these bonds will remain even when it's so easy to dread the inevitable change. That's scary but also represents real growth when it finally occurs.

Some things don't really change at all. Nick and Charlie are always sneaking off to kiss. They fear getting caught. They just can't help themselves sometimes. Their families are aware of the relationship. They have their thoughts and opinions. Nothing stops Nick and Charlie from wanting to be together all the time. The same applies to Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell). They are essentially ready to take the next step in their relationship. They simply arrive at that point at different times which presents as a struggle for the always carefree and confident Darcy. Meanwhile, Tao (Emmy nominee William Gao) and Elle (Emmy nominee Yasmin Finney) continue to pine after one another. They are faced with the fear that everything needs to be perfect in order for them to jeopardize their friendship for a relationship. That paralyzes them. When they are just acting like themselves though, their connection is just as magical as every other relationship. Again, the show believes in that idealized sense of the world. Romance is wonderful. It defines plenty of stories. However, it doesn't have to be the most important thing for everyone. It's the narrative that always develops. It's how conversations are shaped by public perception and expectations. It's difficult for those who decide to buck those expectations. That's a deliberate emphasis this year as well. So much of what happens in Season 2 comes directly from Oseman's graphic novels. And yet, several elements have to be expanded upon in order to fill out the narrative demands of a television show. That balance has carefully considered and delivered in the first season. The same is true this year. The show moves with more confidence. It knows precisely how to deliver the true and vulnerable emotions of every single character and situation. That's freeing. Of course, several big plot developments occur that leave many of the characters with potentially massive changes heading into the third season - which has already been ordered by Netflix. It's a satisfying story from start to finish. It's also clear that so many conversations need to be had by these characters both in the big moments happening at this time and in the future to ensure their relationships remain healthy and strong. That's inevitable. The way in which the characters arrive at those resolutions is varied and engaging every step of the way. The emotions are genuine and the characters are loving. Everything works through a combination of simple storytelling and trust in the care given to hear and validate every voice of a diverse community.

All 8 episodes of Netflix's Heartstopper Season 2 will be available to stream on Thursday, August 3 at midnight Pacific Time. I've seen all 8 episodes to contribute to this review of the season. Reviews for each individual episode will be released on launch day.