I spent most of my time with Heartstopper waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Queer love stories often bear the burden of tragedy. The breadth of unhappy beginnings, middles, and ends can be depressing, including miscommunication, terrible timing, abuse, and death. It’s a brutal cliché that trains you to expect the worst outcome. No matter how blissful a couple looks on a movie poster, someone will be hugging the blood-stained shirt of their lost loved one.
Heartstopper has a premise rife with chances to make its queer characters miserable. The Netflix series is about a group of British teenagers at two same-sex schools figuring out love and identity. The main story follows Charlie (Joe Locke), an openly gay teen, and Nick (Kit Connor), a presumed-straight rugby player who takes a liking to him. The chemistry between them is evident at first glance, but there are some complications. Charlie secretly hooks up with a closeted student who refuses to engage him emotionally. Meanwhile, Nick thinks he’s straight, and his friend group isn’t very queer-friendly.
Charlie and Nick’s romantic tension could’ve festered into something ugly and cruel. And yet, Heartstopper fights every toxic impulse. It’s focused on telling a first-love story that is charming without being unrealistic. That doesn’t mean their romance lacks conflict; Nick and Charlie face real challenges in their relationship. Charlie has very low self-esteem, believing that being gay means he’s meant to be unhappy. Nick’s feelings for Charlie deeply confuse him, sending him into a “proper, full-on gay crisis,” as he describes it. (He realizes throughout the series that he is bisexual.) Those feelings have him re-evaluating everything, from his attractions to his complacency with his friends’ homophobia.
Heartstopper approaches those challenges differently than other teen series like Euphoria or Elite. Unlike them, compassion often wins out over melodrama. Nick tries not to burden Charlie with his identity issues. When he does, he expresses regret, apologizes, and takes steps to do better. He encourages and compliments Charlie from the beginning, helping to break down years of emotional walls. It’s considerable labor – Charlie’s self-loathing is second nature to him – but Nick does it because he cares deeply for Charlie. As for Charlie, he experiences having a partner who isn’t ashamed and doesn’t gaslight and emotionally abuse him. Even though their relationship isn’t as public as they’d like, it feels honest and lovely.
Much of that loveliness comes from its two excellent young leads, Joe Locke and Kit Connor. Both actors do an excellent job communicating their characters’ complicated but heartfelt emotions. Locke can break your heart with a wistful smile that tries and fails to hide Charlie’s fears of being unwanted and make you cheer when a real smile lights up his face. Connor fits nicely into the sensitive jock mold of streaming stars Noah Centineo and Paul Mescal, although his intense, disarming vulnerability recalls the latter most. Together, Locke and Connor are delightful, with warm and easy chemistry that is very hard not to root for, if not impossible.
The series adds another layer of charm to its romance with some lovely digital animations. Heartstopper is based on a series of popular graphic novels and pays homage to them with colorful doodles that convey emotions the characters don’t or can’t. Tiny yellow sparks when two hands signal nervous excitement. Butterflies accompany a soft gaze at someone when they aren’t looking. Dark shadows represent one’s worst fears realized. The animated overlays could’ve been annoying, but they accurately reflect the delightful, terrifying spirit of young love. They’re also very adorable.
Charlie and Nick’s romance is so precious that the other stories can’t help but pale in comparison. The most important sub-plot involves Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney), two of Charlie’s close friends. Elle is a trans woman who switches to an all-girls school but remains close with Charlie and Tao. The series sets Elle and Tao up to develop feelings for one another but doesn’t give us enough to understand either character. Elle is the better written of the two, which is troubling since she is pretty underdeveloped. Tao is insufferable most of the time, so possessive of Charlie that I thought he had his own romantic feelings for him. I don’t know much about Elle or her experiences, but I know enough to say that she deserves better than Tao.
Over eight episodes, Heartstopper tells a story of young, life-affirming love that you have to be downright hateful not to understand or appreciate. It’s a show that wears its heart on its sleeve, choosing radical empathy every chance. Nick and Charlie’s romance may seem too good to be true, but it’s hard to fault a story that pain and misery aren’t inevitable in queer relationships, that you can find someone who loves you for who you are without a shoe waiting to be dropped.
Heartstopper is streaming on Netflix.