This week, the British coming-of-age drama “Heartstopper” returned to laptop screens all over the world. Based on Alice Oseman’s webcomics, the Netflix series follows a romantic relationship between two high school students, Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor), whose friendship group includes a young trans woman, Elle (Yasmin Finney), and a lesbian couple, Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell).
The first season of this fizzy, feel-good show amassed 24 million hours of views in its first week, according to Netflix, and received glowing reviews from critics. But does it really reflect reality for British L.G.B.T.Q. teenagers?
“It’s probably my only comfort show,” said Sharan Sahota, 16, as she settled into an armchair on a recent afternoon to watch the first four episodes of the new season. In “Heartstopper,” Charlie is outed as gay in eighth grade; Sahota, who identifies as pansexual, was also outed at school around the same age.
“It wasn’t a pleasant experience,” she said, adding that seeing a similar ordeal depicted in “Heartstopper” has helped her feel less alone. “If they can get through it, and they’re living happily, so can I,” she said.
Sahota, Oscar Wittams-Nangle and Ari Michaluk, all 16, recently gathered in London for a “Heartstopper” watch party. The trio — who attend a weekly youth club run by the charity Mosaic L.G.B.T.+ Young Persons’ Trust — discussed the show’s relevance and accuracy, as well as its surprisingly chaste attitude to sex. There was popcorn, giggling and more than a little eye-rolling.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and contains mild spoilers.
In this season, we see Nick struggling to come out as bisexual multiple times. How relevant is coming out to your generation?
ARI MICHALUK I think it’s still definitely relevant. Many kids still feel like they have to come out, especially to parents. I came out to my mum twice, first I was gay, then I was like, actually I’m trans.
OSCAR WITTAMS-NANGLE Coming out is definitely a pressure. But at least for me, it was always an external pressure that came from other people, rather than something I felt I needed to do for me.
SHARAN SAHOTA When you’re outed, you’re just like, “I can’t do anything.” The closet is just glass after that. But when you change environments, you don’t have to come out.
MICHALUK I understand why they wrote Nick feeling like he needs to come out to everyone in order to actually be out. But I feel like it would be a better message to show that you don’t need to. You can just exist as an L.G.B.T. person, and just be in a relationship without having to tell everyone that you are this way.
What do you think “Heartstopper” is doing that other L.G.B.T. films and shows aren’t?
MICHALUK What I like about the show is that it doesn’t overdramatize for shock value, or just to play with your emotions. It’s about gay people, but it’s not tragic. A lot of queer films just show how sad it is. Especially in shows like “Euphoria”: It’s all about how horrible everyone is and how everything just goes badly. In “Heartstopper,” people fix stuff by talking.
WITTAMS-NANGLE “Queer as Folk” was released in 1999 in Britain. I saw a few reviews draw comparisons to that. And it’s like, not really: It’s not that the reviewers didn’t understand it, but it was definitely a result of them not having this sort of show when they were growing up. There aren’t that many cultural references that they can draw on.
What do you make of the lack of sex in the show?
MICHALUK A lot of other shows focus way more on sex when it’s not all about that: It’s also your affection toward people. That’s why so many straight people misunderstand us. It’s not about being proud of liking boys, or whoever you like, it’s about the experience of being gay in a heteronormative society.
WITTAMS-NANGLE It’s good that “Heartstopper” moves away from sexuality being purely about sex. It does mean more than that to me. It’s an identity, it’s a community. I think there are some things that are sanitized, but I wouldn’t say it would be the portrayal of sexuality.
Which aspects are sanitized, do you think?
WITTAMS-NANGLE The Harry character is very sanitized. Most queerphobic bullies say things that are a lot worse. I’ve had worse.
SAHOTA In real life there’s a whole group of them.
MICHALUK Whether it’s people staring at you, or it’s people outright harassing you, it’s a constant struggle. I understand why you wouldn’t want to include that in the show, because it’s meant to be a happy show.
WITTAMS-NANGLE Also, it definitely is not easy in this country to be able to get gender affirming care, especially at our age, because you need to either have money, or luck.
We don’t see Elle’s transition on the show.
WITTAMS-NANGLE If you can get past all the waiting lists, all the appointments go well, then maybe you’ll get it on the N.H.S. [Britain’s National Health Service]. But, otherwise, there’s no chance. I think that is a struggle that isn’t shown in any media.
Does it matter that the two main characters are two cisgender white boys?
MICHALUK I think it does. That’s one of the things that makes it less relatable to me as a trans woman. With Nick and Charlie both being white cis boys, it’s more digestible. They’re the default, and then there’s one variable, that they’re gay, or bi.
WITTAMS-NANGLE Personally, I’m fine with it not being perfect, because there is absolutely no way you can make the perfect show for something which is as varied and as individual as living life as a queer person.
Do you think “Heartstopper” is aiming for realism, or is it depicting an aspirational world?
SAHOTA I think it’s a mix.
WITTAMS-NANGLE Aspiration is the word. A lot of people don’t have accepting parents, or don’t have an accepting peer group, don’t have friends they feel comfortable coming out to. I watch the show and I’m like, “I wish my school could’ve been like that.”
MICHALUK They’re kissing a lot. They really were shoving each other into the wall. They’re in the middle of school and practically making out!
WITTAMS-NANGLE It was quite funny, the changing room scene where they’re like, “We shouldn’t be kissing at school. We need to be discreet.” And they’re talking really loudly. Not doing very well on the discreet thing.