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Love, Victor Is Maturing Into a Better, Messier Version of Itself

Illustration: Michael Desmond/ HULU

Note: There are light spoilers for Love, Victor season two below.

One thing I did not expect to see in the second season of Love, Victor was a bottle of lube. So I was about as shocked as Victor, the show’s chirpy, newly out high-school protagonist, when he notices a squishy plastic cylinder lying on top of his more experienced boyfriend’s wallet when they go off to a cabin for the weekend. Victor, 14 episodes into the YA series, is still a virgin, and the episode’s called “The Sex Cabin,” so I assumed I could guess the contours of the episode from there. Victor’s nervous, his boyfriend doesn’t realize, some misunderstandings ensue, and then, eventually, get resolved — which, not to spoil an obvious but satisfying arc, does happen. What I didn’t expect was that the show would be upfront about the actual mechanics of gay sex, so accustomed have I become to gay characters who live in a miraculous universe where body parts do not chafe.

In its first season, Love, Victor was more of a frictionless enterprise, too. Like the Nick Robinson–starring movie Love, Simon that preceded it, Love, Victor traded in neat, bright colors, and teachable moments, this time grafted onto the character of Victor, played by Michael Cimino, a younger student attending the same school as the movie’s protagonist (who regularly pops up in the show as Victor’s mentor in his coming-out journey). In its framing, the show’s depiction of Victor’s coming out pushed against Love, Simon’s “Aw, wouldn’t it be nice to have Jennifer Garner as a supportive mom?” story line, giving him a more complicated relationship with his parents, and considering differences of race and class — but lightly, and in soft focus. Around its edges, you could glimpse a more interesting, messier show: There was an episode where Victor ran off to New York to see some real gay city life, the breakup of his parents’ marriage over adultery, and a scene where his love interest Benji admits to drinking and driving. But otherwise, Love, Victor tended to color within the lines in season one. Victor only experiments with kissing, and the season slowly builds to the moment he tells his parents he’s gay, as if the show couldn’t contain whatever complications would follow.

Like a teen still trying to please his parents, the first version of Love, Victor looked as if it had buttoned up to survive its own production history: The first season was written and shot for Disney+, but then shuffled off to the more adult Hulu before it aired. Last year, the creators told me that was a “collective decision,” because they wanted “to do a show where 16-year-olds were behaving like 16-year-olds do,” which wasn’t the right fit for Disney’s kid–and–Baby Yoda–focused platform, though Disney+ was reportedly not happy about all the things that made Love, Victor’s first season interesting: “alcohol use, marital issues, and sexual exploration.” (Never mind that the sexual exploration on the show happened more among the straights.) Even if the creators insisted that the first season was what they wanted to make, when it came out on Hulu, you could still sense how the show was written for a Disney+ audience, which is to say, one younger and less familiar with gay worlds. It could be didactic, with lectures from Simon to Victor from afar, and yet vague about anything to do with sexual longing, which is, after all, a key aspect of coming out.

Watching the show’s second season, which dropped in full today, it’s a surprise and a relief to see Love, Victor embrace the possibilities of being on Hulu. Yes, Victor does finally get to have sex, just as a newly out 17-year-old would. (Though when it happens for Victor, there isn’t actually a shot of anyone reaching for the lube. Baby steps!) Yes, his parents’ dynamic gets even more complicated, though not in a plot involving adultery, but because they end up having wildly different abilities to cope with their son’s coming out. And yes, there are a lot more scenes where teens drink alcohol, which does add to the realism. Also, characters use Grindr, though not by name — it’s referred to as “one of those apps, you know which one” and it makes that one notification sound that will trigger a Pavlovian response if you do indeed know which one.

It would be wrong, however, to attribute Love, Victor’s improvement just to the fact that it can be more explicit now than it could when it was being conceived as a Disney product. The first season built its whole story line around Victor’s coming out, which, in terms of depictions of gay characters, isn’t exactly new material. The second season, by contrast, can explore the narrative potential of just living with a main character who is an out teen. Here, Love, Victor avoids tidy resolutions. There are guys on his basketball team who aren’t comfortable showering with him, and no, they don’t all suddenly learn their lesson in a single episode. His relationship with his boyfriend Benji gets into shaky territory when he worries that he isn’t gay enough for Benji’s friends, and because Benji doesn’t get why Victor keeps trying to appease his mother, who refuses to acknowledge much about her son’s sexuality, or his boyfriend. These story lines are all the better for acknowledging how much a teenager’s coming out is entangled with his sexual desires, and the way that might make those around him uncomfortable. Love, Victor has gotten better at not pulling its punches, and allowing viewers to sit with the mess that arises over those desires.

That mess is what’s at the heart of this season’s main conflict, between Victor and his mother Isabel, played with quiet grace by Ana Ortiz, and it’s here that Love, Victor finds its best material. There are no easy solutions between Isabel and her son. She and Victor have always been close, but she’s also deeply involved in her church, and slow to unlearn what she has been taught. The show, thankfully, doesn’t let her priest off the hook, nor does it have a moment where Victor bends to accommodate her faith. Later in the season, the show introduces Rahim, a gay student from an Iranian Muslim family, who is more outwardly effeminate than Victor or Benji. While Isabel clams up around Benji, she’s charmed by Rahim’s knack for talking about home décor and enthusiasm for her memories of singing “Suddenly, Seymour” in high school. It’s a smart, believable paradox of parental acceptance.

Even as the show’s storytelling acumen grows in this season, though, it still does trip on old habits. As you might expect, Rahim and Victor’s friendship quickly develops more than just friendly frisson. There’s a lot of believable tension there — Victor and Benji have a history, Victor and Rahim can relate to each other better about their families — though things can end up feeling schematic. In concept, it’s great to see a queer person of color as flamboyant as Rahim be a primary love interest, though he often feels like more of a character sketch than full person. His relationship with his parents is more told than seen. He suffers from Young Adult TV Show Dialogue Syndrome, where he talks far more like a 30-something TV writer than a teenager, making references to Blackpink and his attraction to Tom Holland that feel very “How do you do, fellow teens?” Victor’s straight friend Lake (Bebe Wood) has it worse: At one point she makes a joke about Gen Z’s favorite film, Ford v Ferrari. (If the teens do indeed love Ford v Ferrari, please tell me, I would love that.)

The show’s creaky dialogue comes part and parcel with a lot of its other more generic impulses. Love, Victor is a pathbreaking YA show in its choice of main character, but it still exhibits an urge to fit in with its peers, especially some of the lighter teen-drama fare you might find on basic cable. While the season expands its depiction of coming out as a gay man, Love, Victor has little to say about trans or gender nonconforming queer experiences. The cast is uniformly symmetrical, clean cut, with makeup and hairstyling that ensures they’re almost boringly attractive. The needle-drops include a lot of lovely but forgettable synth pop — at one point, as all teen shows must, Love, Victor deploys a version of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

Even while becoming more adult on Hulu, Love, Victor is still, I imagine, aiming for an audience younger than, say, that of HBOMax’s more provocative (but also less emotionally engaging) Genera+ion, and certainly than HBO’s Euphoria. Being a big-studio movie about a gay teen, Love, Simon burdened itself with providing neat lessons about coming out in a way that could rankle, and even though it’s grown into specificity, Love, Victor can similarly feel as if it’s trying to tutor its audiences. That’s a worthwhile niche — the kids should have an approachable way to learn about coming out — but the more compelling parts of the season arise when it gets less didactic, and when Victor isn’t just a cipher through which to depict A Gay Teen, but kind of a mess of a person. By the end of the season, my concern for his well-being caught me by surprise. Even as I tried to retain some critical distance, I had to put off watching the finale for a few days because I was so worried about him hurting either Benji or Rahim.

And yet all the contradictions within Love, Victor make it a fascinating show to watch, purely on a meta level. It’s a show that seems to be in conversation with itself about the best way to tell its own story, how gay to be, how much to risk alienating a wider audience, and how much to appease them, just as its lead character is making those same calculations. So I was heartened, this season, when both Victor and the show chose to be more daring. It’s almost as if it aligns with some broader conclusion, that to tell a gay teen’s story well you do have push past the conventions of typical young-adult stories. You have to include the sex, the trips to gay bars, the drinking, the Grindr, the strained feelings with some people you love, and the thrilling sparks of new feelings with people you didn’t expect too — and, yes, you have to include the lube.