Hulu’s new teen coming-out show Love, Victor feels like two shows at once. The show is its own thing, a story about a kid named Victor (Michael Cimino) who moves to a new town, wrestles with understanding his sexual identity, and lives in intense anxiety about what will happen if he comes out to his conservative parents. Victor’s story is plenty sweet and endearing on its own; it is a warm teen love story set inside the frame of Victor’s self-discovery, and the show capably follows Victor and his friends and family as they deal with their own obstacles. But there’s a simultaneous, compelling vein of the show that’s less about telling Victor’s story, and more about putting Victor in conversation with Simon (Nick Robinson), the main character from Love, Victor’s progenitor movie Love, Simon. On its own, Love, Victor is a good, pleasant TV show. As the frankly resentful follow-up to a similarly pleasant movie, Love, Victor is something much more interesting.
All spinoffs are, in some way, in conversation or tension with their parent stories. The Conners is perhaps the most dramatic recent example, but grown-ish’s politics are in direct conversation with black-ish, Law & Order: SVU is a deliberate and focused response to the mechanisms of Law & Order classic, and The Jeffersons is a direct, pointed reply to All in the Family. Even The Bachelorette is an explicit rebuttal to The Bachelor — some sense of reply, of reprioritization, or of conflict is inherent in a spinoff’s very nature. Younger siblings are defined as siblings from the jump, whether they want it or not. But younger siblings grow up, and spinoff shows are usually most successful once they cut themselves free of any obligation they have to what came before. Watching a show that never shakes the long shadow of its origin is rarely satisfying.
Rarely, but not always. I hadn’t seen Love, Simon before I watched Love, Victor, but I had absorbed at least some of the conversation about it: the happiness of watching a generally untroubled, sweet rom-com kind of movie about a gay teen; the affirmation of seeing parents who are initially taken aback but swiftly embrace their son; how a movie like this can work as a blunt pedagogical tool for uncertain parents of gay kids. I’d also absorbed some of the critiques of Love, Simon, mostly that it is about a wildly privileged, white vision of gay identity that refuses to consider the violence and bigotry of homophobia. I assumed Love, Victor, a story about a Latinx teen and his family, would perhaps brush up against some of the critiques of Love, Simon, addressing them implicitly or commenting on them once or twice.
Instead, some of the strongest moments of Love, Victor are the scenes when Victor is plainly furious with Simon, when both the show and its protagonist are openly struggling with their complicated, overly simplistic lineage. Victor goes to Simon’s old high school, and just like much of Love, Victor’s audience, everyone at Creekwood High remembers Simon. So Victor finds Simon on Instagram, and writes him a message. It’s an echo of the message-writing frame from Love, Simon, where Simon has an email relationship with an anonymous gay kid at his school. “Dear Simon,” Victor writes, echoing the movie. He introduces himself, explains that he’s just moved to Creekwood, and that while Simon doesn’t know him, Victor’s just learned all about Simon’s history at the school. “And I just want to say — screw you!” he types. Victor’s parents are not that accepting. He has lost his group of friends. “For some of us it’s not that easy,” Victor writes, adding “I just need you to know that you’re very lucky, Simon.”
Those are the first lines in Love, Victor. Much of the rest of the series does become Victor’s own story — his attempt to have a girlfriend, the stress in his parents’ marriage, his painful crush on his coffeeshop co-worker Benji (George Sear) — but Love, Victor feels most animated and most remarkable when it’s grappling with Victor’s pushback against Simon’s story. Because Simon does write back, offering soothing, hopeful images of what Victor’s life could be. “Who knows? Maybe your family can find their way through your stuff, too,” Simon tells him. Victor’s polite, and he’s grateful to Simon for responding. But he’s not going to sugarcoat it. “My story is nothing like yours,” he tells Simon.
In many ways, Love, Victor feels mostly like a well-built teen show, prominently featuring a coming-out story that is still too rare on TV, but one that’s become much more familiar in the past decade. Gentefied, Vida, Sex Education, and One Day at a Time have all included stories about young, gay characters. Like Victor, the characters on those shows are queer people whose lives are also framed by not being white. The breadth of queer stories and Latinx stories on TV is still nowhere near sufficient, but it’s good that Victor is not alone on TV.
What sets this show apart, though, is how insistently it continues to grapple with Love, Simon’s legacy, and how it lets Victor stay frustrated by Simon, even when he’s also envious of him, admiring him, trying to learn from him. Love, Victor could have just been a Love, Simon copycat, or it could’ve tried to ignore most of what its predecessor did. Both of those versions would still have had a place on TV, and if Love, Victor returns for a second season, my guess is it may be more along those lines — further from Love, Simon’s influence as Victor becomes more confident in himself.
For now, though, it is all the things a nice teen rom-com show should be. It’s sweet, funny, goofy, full of emotion, a little rocky in parts, sometimes a little overloaded on heavy backstory, and not particularly interested in subtlety. But for a first season especially, it’s impressive how effectively it turns Love, Simon’s epistolary structure against itself. Victor’s messages are not love letters. They are a spinoff doing its best to push back against the narrow perspective of its origin story, through a Latinx gay kid with conservative parents trying to open a white kid’s eyes to his own privilege.
Correction: An earlier version of this review mistakingly referred to grown-ish as young-ish.