Heartstopper Needs to Dig Deeper

TV Features Heartstopper
Heartstopper Needs to Dig Deeper

The beautiful love story of Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) unfolds in Netflix’s Heartstopper—an adaptation of the graphic novel series from creator Alice Oseman, who is also the sole writer for the show. Alongside Charlie and Nick, their best friends Tao (William Gao), Elle (Yasmin Finney), Tara (Corinna Brown), Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), and Isaac (Tobie Donovan) are each discovering their own identities. The series is surprisingly well done, and those responsible for creating it are obviously very aware of the importance of telling these stories in an honorable and respectful manner. This is certainly still the case as Season 2 is, in some ways, even better than the first. But, as much as I do love the show, it’s clear there’s so much untapped potential to make Heartstopper even more impactful and groundbreaking—if only the series would dig in a little deeper and thoroughly explore what the characters are going through.

Nick’s coming out journey is the perfect example of the series’ potential. In the beloved first season, we watched this charming exploration of Nick discovering his bisexuality amidst his growing romantic feelings for Charlie, causing him to question himself at every turn. By season’s end, after accepting his identity and making things official with Charlie, Nick has one of television’s most touching and comforting coming-out scenes with his mother, Sarah (Olivia Colman). But, whereas most shows would end this exploration then and there, the recently-premiered second season expands on that journey as Nick grapples with coming out to the world—or, rather, his fellow students—and letting everyone know about his romance with Charlie. The second act of his coming out arc is explored just as thoroughly, and his feelings are just as fleshed out as the first.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like this kind of deep exploration into the story is happening with the other characters, which is where the series is missing out on some fantastic opportunities. Despite being the co-leading character, Charlie’s story has a lot of holes where the series can and should dive in deeper. Heartstopper Season 2 misses the mark by not fully exploring Charlie’s struggle in his relationship with Nick being in the closet. This is causing such a stir inside of Charlie that his eating disorder has flared up, and even though he’s giving sad glances to the camera when Nick’s head is turned, the series isn’t actually exploring his multifaceted perspective, which is perfectly justified and could easily co-exist with Nick’s.

The general issue here is that Heartstopper is actively trying to keep the lighthearted, family-friendly tone that, ultimately, doesn’t work when attempting to tell complex stories such as these. The subject matter is rather difficult, but it has been since Ben sexually assaulted Charlie in the pilot episode after Charlie calls things off between them. However, the result of trying to keep this light tone and tell these stories is that these darker turns are only slightly touched upon in the narrative before everyone moves on. It becomes rather detrimental to try to keep this forced jubilance instead of taking the time to more completely explore a story and the emotional well-being of the characters involved.

It’s particularly noticeable in the second season, but not solely regarding Charlie and Nick’s relationship. As we learned when the series began, Charlie and Elle were bullied rather relentlessly before the events of the pilot unfolded for their identities. However, the series refuses to unpack what exactly this “bullying” entailed. While nobody wants to see Heartstopper turn into trauma porn with terrible flashbacks of their respective experiences, it’s not enough to vaguely gesture to bullying in the past without proper exploration of what the characters went through—which could be achieved through conversations with a counselor, a loved one, or even journal entries. Bullying can mean a variety of things and, as such, can have a variety of outcomes for how it impacts someone moving forward in their lives. It’s particularly baffling considering how the students of Truham have acted since the show began, as it doesn’t quite align with the monstrous behavior Charlie and Elle often imply—or outright say, on occasion—they experienced.

Another example of this reluctance to show the darker side that, unfortunately, often goes hand-in-hand with being queer is the reveal that Darcy’s mother (and father, apparently) are both horribly homophobic. The fight between Darcy and her mother at the end of the penultimate episode could have had more power if most of it was not drowned out by music and made less intense with the graphic novel touches on-screen.

Simply, how can we watch these characters work through the trauma of something without knowing what it is? The finale is a step in the right direction, as Charlie and Nick’s conversation about Charlie’s history of self-harm is a turning point in their relationship, as is Darcy and Tara’s conversation about why Darcy hid the truth about her family. These are the conversations that the series needs to embrace on a regular basis, which allows for more sensitive subjects to be explored, while keeping close to the tone that the series prides itself on. Deep conversations that last for more than a minute and actually take the time to explore the emotional aspect of what the characters are going through and where they have been would be enough to elevate Heartstopper’s messages and themes. 

So far, Heartstopper relies too heavily on the implications of how bad and/or difficult something is. When it does address some of the trauma the characters have or are currently experiencing, it usually only skims the surface of the complicated subject before the characters are moving on and working through it, as Season 2 does with Tao’s father dying and his subsequent fear of abandonment. There’s the opportunity to do so much more, to educate and enchant the younger crowd while still fully exploring the harder aspects of life as a queer teenager. The finale of the second season is a great place to start, but here’s hoping Season 3 continues to dig deeper.

Jay Snow is a freelance writer. He has published many places on the internet. For more of his thoughts on television and to see his other work (or to simply watch him gush again and again over his love for the original Charmed) follow him @snowyjay.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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