tv review

Heartstopper Can’t Stop Asking If You’re Okay With This

Photo: Netflix

Heartstopper, sweet as a s’more, sincere as a PSA, has returned for a second season of good intentions and painful self-consciousness. It’s true to the tone of Heartstopper’s first blockbuster season, which captured something almost unbearably tender about teen romance and the experience of gradually understanding your sexuality. Both seasons are full of soaring earnestness and palpable caution, two instincts that reflect familiar teenage impulses. But season two can’t always balance them with the same sense of ease that glowed out of the first season. There’s more caution in season two. Especially as the show has extended outward to tell more stories about Nick and Charlie’s friends, Heartstopper starts to feel notably careful, like it’s been written from a defensive stance.

The Netflix adaptation of author and writer-producer Alice Oseman’s gay teen romance graphic novel series picks up right where it left off with its two leads Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke) in the rapturous throes of discovering your crush really likes you back. Nick has realized he’s bi, and his friendship with Charlie has transformed into playful, disbelieving days of wrestling and sneaking off into darkened hallways to kiss. But Nick hasn’t yet come out to the whole school, which is the fuel for much of this season. What happens in that limbo space between knowing something about yourself and publicizing it? Why doesn’t the internal feeling of a thing translate more easily to the outer self?

The key to Heartstopper’s unmistakable swooning impact is how well it performs the exact translation that Nick finds so hard. Everything in Heartstopper looks the way it feels. Nick is the most glowing golden boy ever to stride across a rugby field with a flip of burnished blond-red hair. Charlie, the one who hides his anguish, is all angular features and dark curls. They and their friends live in a world of perfect 19th-century-style pathetic fallacy. When they feel happy, they stand in warmly lit circles wreathed in a heavenly haze, and their admiring gazes fill the whole frame. When they feel stress, the clouds roll in and they are shrunken inside their settings, small and partially obscured from view. In particularly intense moments, Heartstopper overlays the frame with simple small animations, swirling leaves or hearts or bright little sparks that burst between barely touching fingers. It is Romance (with a capital R) of a kind that would be immediately recognizable to Keats or Mary Shelley or any of the later Pre-Raphaelite crowd. It is perfect because it is an unbroken fantasy and because that fantasy reflects something that feels more true than reality. The sky should glow with a twisting rainbow when you see that your new boyfriend has posted an adorable picture of you. Doesn’t that make much more sense than some cold, false objectivity?

But the other effect of Heartstopper’s visual subjectivity is its stark legibility. Charlie and Nick don’t always know exactly what the other one is feeling, and Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney) might have some fumbling miscommunication that leads to a fight. Yet the viewer is never, ever allowed to feel a matching ambiguity. Those little animations are so canny — they look like internal emotions bursting out into ornamentation, but they’re really the doodling fingers of a narrator-cartoonist overcome with feeling, clarifying and emphasizing one specific interpretation of whatever’s going on. Charlie, the closest this show gets to allowing obscured inner life, struggles with disordered eating and eventually confesses how much his history of bullying has affected him. When Charlie’s unhappiness comes into focus, the colors around him shift into shadow, preventing even the slightest breath of interpretive openness from a viewer.

It’s this anxiety of misinterpretation, this absolute terror of being misconstrued, that starts to take over Heartstopper’s second season in occasionally distracting ways. With less all-consuming attention on Nick and Charlie, there’s more time to invest in their group of friends, whose identities and traumas and desires sometimes feel like a very careful chart of teen issues. On one side of the chart, there are topics (coming out, feelings of low self-worth, lack of parental support), and on the other side, sample supportive dialogue in response (thank you for telling me, I’m so proud of you, this is not your fault, etc). The most blunt example is Isaac (Tobie Donovan), who finds himself drawn toward a library display of prominently titled LGBTQ+ identity books while everyone else dances at prom. (Animated leaves around Isaac, previously sadly falling and blue-gray, now turn pink-red and spring into a hopeful twirl.)

If it were just Heartstopper’s visual approach, that would be one thing, especially because Connor and Locke’s performances are so impressively pitched toward glassily transparent emotion. But it’s all over the dialogue too: this need to reassure, to forestall any doubts. Important disclosures are met with clearly articulated, emotionally open responses. Intimacy is expressed through explicit requests for consent and thesis statements about the self, and almost never through runaway sexual feelings. “You care about your friends so loudly, without worrying what anyone else might think,” Nick tells Tao when he worries about being likable. “Is that okay?” Nick asks while giving Charlie a modest kiss on the neck. “How about we promise to tell each other when we’ve got stuff going on?” Charlie suggests to Nick, as if there was ever the slightest chance that these characters might not pause to explain their exact inner turmoils.

Whether Heartstopper’s particular variety of excess (a fantasy of chaste-but-overwhelming teen emotion combined with preternaturally perfect communication skills) comes off as endearing or obnoxious is entirely down to taste, but even then its sap-sweet flavor could stand a few grains of salt. Is there something about Heartstopper that feels safe and digestible for straight adults, for instance, in a way that gay romance might not be when it’s more sexually explicit? Is there an element of Heartstopper that’s more about modeling behavior than it is about reflecting humanity? And still, it’s hard to deny how winning this show can be. It is intensely good at being itself: a feel-good story about the most emotionally intelligent teens imaginable, whose fears and identities are affirmed, who kiss each other as if they’ll never, ever get tired of it. Because if they did, the fantasy would end.

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Heartstopper Can’t Stop Asking If You’re Okay With This