Heartstopper (Netflix) may not quite live up to the dramatic promise of its title, but this adorable teen romance is a heartwarmer, at the very least. Adapted by the writer Alice Oseman from her graphic novel series of the same name, it follows 14-year-old Charlie as he develops a crush on popular rugby player Nick, after they bond over whether it is appropriate or not to do your homework on the way to maths. It is unutterably sweet and wholesome, and by the end of its zippy eight episodes, it leaves the sensation of being on the receiving end of a solid hug.
Charlie is already out at school, and has experienced some bullying as a result, but seems to have settled into a supportive friendship group who value their film nights and send each other a lot of DMs. (There is much on-screen messaging in this, and watching characters write, delete, rewrite and re-delete their replies is tensely effective.) Charlie has a secret sort-of-boyfriend, Ben, who meets up with him in the library at break time, but who picks on him when anyone else is around. When Ben progresses from treating him coldly to getting a girlfriend then belittling him when they are together, Nick comes to the rescue, and their friendship slowly builds towards something else.
It is so completely lovely. It nods to its origins as a graphic novel with moments of animation, particularly when emotions run high. Hands almost touch; cartoon lightning crackles between them. Charlie’s friend Elle wonders if she has feelings for their other friend, Tao, and hearts appear in the air. It looks like Hollyoaks with an art-school twist. There are minor dramas among Charlie’s friends, but mostly it’s about Charlie and Nick. The adults are practically nonexistent, bar the odd cameo from a parent and Stephen Fry, whose voice appears as the headteacher speaking over the Tannoy.
I am not quite sure who the target audience is. It certainly feels aimed at a young crowd, and if teenagers are watching Euphoria now, then this feels more like a throwback to Byker Grove/Grange Hill days. There are double dates with milkshakes and lots of meaningful hugs. But it has a modern sophistication, too, with its emotionally articulate protagonists, who have a surprisingly mature grasp of sexuality as a spectrum. An exploration of bisexuality, for example, is handled with care, though it helps that in this case Olivia Colman is the understanding mum, a role she suits very well. Charlie joins the rugby team, in part to pursue his crush on Nick, but also to protest against the idea that he won’t be any good since he is supposed to be a certain type of gay boy.
“Wow, being a teenager is terrible,” says the caring art teacher, and after watching the episode about a rich kid’s 16th birthday party, few would be inclined to disagree. But the truth is that, in this world, being a teenager doesn’t seem so bad. The adults are lovely, siblings are friendly, and most of the kids are pleasant enough. It isn’t a rainbow-tinted paradise entirely – there is some homophobia, mostly through a lack of understanding and/or driven by curiosity, and Ben’s self-loathing finds a nasty release in his treatment of Charlie. Mostly, however, Charlie’s friends, including a pair of old-soul lesbians whose purpose seems to be to help everyone become more comfortable with who they are, give him all the support he needs.
For this old cynic, such wholesomeness is a little hard to adjust to, and I am certainly not the audience its makers had in mind. But by the time I finish Heartstopper, I understand its appeal. It is a comic book fantasy about LGBTQ+ teenagers, and as such, it softens any hard edges and amplifies the sweetness of the romance at its centre. There is something altogether soothing about the time spent in its company.