Heartbreak High (2022) season 1 review – the new gold standard for teen dramas

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: September 14, 2022
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Heartbreak High (2022) season 1 review - the new gold standard for teen dramas

This review of Netflix’s Heartbreak High (2022) season 1 is spoiler-free. 

READ: 5 reasons to watch Heartbreak High.

READ: Everything we know about Heartbreak High.

Let’s get the obvious comparisons out of the way. Yes, Netflix’s 2022 reboot of Heartbreak High is a bit like Euphoria and a lot like Sex Education. On balance, neither comparison is probably a bad thing – those are two highly-regarded and widely-viewed shows, after all – but both undersell what has really been achieved here. So, yes, while any show set in a high school that revolves predominantly around sex and identity will draw comparisons with the most prominent high-school shows about sex and identity, don’t let that put you off. Heartbreak High isn’t a cheap imitation. In fact, it might be the new gold standard for the genre. A few years from now, I might open another review about a show that feels suspiciously like Heartbreak High.

You can forget about the original. This version of Hartley High is twenty years later but right on time, a defiantly progressive and unmistakably Australian coming-of-age story about awkward teenagers embroiled in a sexy scandal. It’s foul-mouthed and sometimes explicit, far more so than the soapy shenanigans you imagine when you think of the original, which ran for seven seasons in the ‘90s and, along with Neighbours and Home and Away, formed part of Australia’s pre-streaming mega-hit triumvirate. At least everyone still dresses like it’s the ‘90s, but fashion trends have always been a snake eating its own tail. Eventually, cool becomes passe and then cooler than ever before.

Heartbreak High has a pretty fluid definition of what’s cool. Its students are wildly diverse in their appearances, backgrounds, sexualities, and socioeconomic statuses. There are archetypes, but virtually all of them are quickly subverted, and the dynamics established across eight episodes frequently defy all genre expectations. Nobody is quite who they appear to be, which is intimately tied to the show’s catalyzing incident – the discovery of an “incest map” in a closed-off stairwell that chronicles in explicit detail all the relationships, hook-ups, and rumors that the new Year 11s have been embroiled in.

The incest map is the work of best friends Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek), though when the season begins, they’re no longer besties for reasons that quickly form a kind of overarching mystery. Amerie is befuddled when Harper turns up to school with a shaved head and no interest in speaking to her. The last they saw of each other was at a festival, but Amerie can’t remember what happened there. Whatever it was, it pushed Harper to radically reinvent herself and distance herself from Amerie completely.

But if this is the macro plot, the micro plot is much more centered on a new sex education class set up for the benefit of everyone who was named on the incest map. This includes Amerie and Harper, as well as the peripheral figures who, across the season, become their friends, lovers, and rivals – popular heartthrob Dusty (Josh Heuston), best friends Darren (James Majoos) and Quinni (Chloe Hayden), troubled bad boy Ca$h (Will McDonald), new kid Malakai (Thomas Weatherall), and some others besides. The class is taught by Jojo (Chika Ikogwe), a hip, understanding new teacher who continually butts heads with the old-fashioned Principal Woodsy, who would rather just pretend none of this is happening.

The breakdown of a friendship is here treated very similarly to how the breakdown of a relationship might be – Amerie claims to have been “dumped” multiple times – and it’s given the gravity it deserves for how completely it upends multiple lives. Pushed to move in new crowds, reinvent themselves, and eventually work through their personal issues, Amerie and Harper are our reluctant guides through a social hierarchy that even they’re not sure about. They once thought the map they drew together could keep it all in order, but we soon learn that drugs, alcohol, consent, identity, sexuality, and class intertwine in such complicated and unexpected ways that no mere wall could ever contain the spiderweb of ensuing drama.

It helps that Heartbreak High is so diverse. Most shows are these days, of course, but usually in a posturing, tokenistic way, so they can uphold the same values without getting criticized for them as easily. This show doesn’t just have a non-binary character, but one that was written for a non-binary actor. It’s the same with Quinni’s autism, which is accurately and sensitively portrayed. These people can’t be boiled down to their “thing”; they’re more than that, as they always have been, and it’s a refreshing show that highlights the importance of empathy without also courting pity.

And the young cast of newcomers all rise to the challenge of bringing these characters to life – there is no doubt in my mind that many careers will be made on the back of this show. Madon, who has only one previous credit, is as capable a lead as any I’ve seen recently, and Majoos, who according to IMDb hasn’t been in anything before this, is an absolute delight. But everyone’s good here; everyone feels like they fit, even if their entire character arc is about them not fitting at all.

If any show deserves the kind of widespread mainstream attention that Netflix can facilitate, it’s this one.

You can stream Heartbreak High (2022) season 1 exclusively on Netflix.

Netflix, Streaming Service, TV, TV Reviews
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