Few places call for drama, messy emotions, and chaos like high school.
The original 1990s show Heartbreak High ran for seven seasons and was broadcast in more than 70 countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Argentina, Mexico, India and Indonesia. The show followed a group of students at a multicultural high school in Sydney and became an icon for Aussie TV. It stood out as an honest and gritty portrayal of teenage life, especially compared to the “strictly clean” visions in other dramas of the time.
Now, a new reboot under the direction of Hannah model Carol Chapman revisits fictional Hartley High in 2022, addressing issues and topics relevant to contemporary audiences.
Heartbreak High will find its place alongside series like Netflix’s Sex Education and HBO’s Euphoria to explore the often grim realities of modern adolescence with style and humor.
But here we have a uniquely Australian perspective on the current wave of teen dramas.
Amiri (Aysha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yaspinsk) have been ride-or-die best friends since childhood. Their greatest project is a map of all of Hartley High’s romantic relationships and entanglements, drawn in a secret off-limits stairwell.
When the map is discovered, Amiri is blamed, and an unexpected group of students find themselves stuck together in “Sexual Literacy Lessons”.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Harper goes to school with a shaven head and a mysterious vendetta against my prince.
With her social life turned upside down, Amy faces off against the misfits in the class Darren (James Magus) and Queenie (Chloe Hayden). From here, she must repair her reputation, figure out what’s wrong with Harper, and navigate the rocky terrain of romance, sex, and heartbreak.
The series is an echo of contemporary teen culture. Pop culture and slang references like “Not Alive” and “Age of Volatility” will date episodes, but for now, Heartbreak High is a potent mirror of modern life.
Just as the original series gave us a variety of characters, this series refreshingly reflects the diversity of today’s high schools.
Our heroine Amiri and her love interests, Dusty (Josh Houston) and the beautiful new boy in Malaccay Town (Thomas Weatherall), are all colorful characters.
Darren isn’t binary, extroverted and proud, but dealing with parents who complain about Darren’s sexual identity and individual pronouns is “very baffling.”
Queenie is gay and reclusive, with one episode sympathetically exploring her difficulties dating and trying to hide appearing “normal”.
These teens all face their own unique problems, but they also find themselves dealing with global upheavals that every viewer can contend with.
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Let’s talk about sex
As Hartley Hay’s map indicates, adolescent sexuality is the crux of the story.
Heartbreak High uses this plot device not just for love triangles and drama, but as an opportunity to question how we talk to teens about sex.
Sexual literacy classes – or “SLTs,” which students ironically refer to as looking like “sluts” – offer some pretty awkward scenes.
The school’s sex education curriculum is riddled with language gaps and outdated knowledge, leaving staff pitifully (but amusingly) unprepared to have nuanced discussions about sex with their students.
Long-suffering teacher Jojo (Chika Ikogwe) tries to mix up the curriculum by injecting some sex positivity, inclusive language, and careful discussion of consent — to mixed results.
As the shiny pink dildo sticking to the school basketball court proves, sex is highly present and unavoidable in a high school setting, whether the scandalous school board likes it or not.
The question is how do you present the topic in a precise manner that keeps these vulnerable students safe.
Heartbreak High’s writing follows from Jojo’s example. When gender is portrayed between characters, the dialogue emphasizes the importance (and joy) of consent. The setting makes the scenes intimate without sexualizing the teens themselves.
The candid depiction of female sexuality and homosexuality is refreshing as well, whether it’s Amiri’s comedic scenes too erotic to focus on, or a realistic discussion of average labia size.
Read more: Netflix sex education offers better sex education than most schools
A complicated and chaotic life
This reboot is a bright new piece of Australian television, powered by a compelling blend of comedy and drama.
He doesn’t shy away from serious topics like drug abuse, youth crime, or discrimination. But he also provides plenty of fly-away moments, letting his characters joke about everything from astrology, to erections, to bad haircuts.
Heartbreak High eschews the cliché and shows its teenage protagonists as complex, messy people that audiences can pull off — even when they make mistakes.
Heartbreak High is streaming on Netflix from September 14th.