Is it nostalgia, or a longing for what we wish we might have had? Writes Ciarán Howley
In April of this year, Netflix released Heartstopper, a coming of age romantic-comedy that would ultimately become its biggest success in a long time. Unlike the plethora of teen dramedies the streamer produces, it features a gay relationship between the awkward Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and adorably dense rugby lad Nick Nelson (Kit Connor). While it follows the same essential beats of romantic comedies, the predictable love-story gets a much-needed refresher through a queer lens.
Based on a young adult graphic novel series by queer author and artist Alice Oseman, Heartstopper went from sensation to phenomenon with the launch of the series. It’s Netflix's highest rated hit on Rotten Tomatoes and first show in a while to cause a viral sensation online because people genuinely enjoyed it. Not that Rotten Tomatoes is a perfect barometer of good-ness, in fact quite the opposite, but it’s got a 100% score that would pique the interest from even the most cursory glance at the show.
And as ever, it’s not just teenagers that enjoy the series. Like the vast majority of successful shows like Gossip Girl or throwbacks like Gilmore Girls, there is a huge fanbase of people in their 20s and 30’s who remember them fondly from their youth. The setting, costumes and time period also transports people back to that time. They evoke a sense of nostalgia - real or fictional.
Induced or not, teen movies and shows give people a chance to put on rose-tinted glasses for a few hours.
Stranger Things, for instance, is an empire built on nostalgia. Its influence is far-reaching; 80s fashion always seems to do the rounds when the show returns, mullets come creeping back and that distinctive style of geometric art becomes favourable among graphic designers on Instagram and Twitter. And while season four captures the Satanic Panic driven by the unfurling Christian right on a nearly photo-realistic level (spoilers: it’s bloody), it tends to fuel ‘pseudo-nostalgia’ more often.
With Heartstopper in particular, it has an added dimension because of its queerness. The show thrives as escapist media in that it gives two gay men the high-school relationship that very few can claim to have experienced in real life, with school being a notorious breeding ground for homophobia that keeps teens in the closet, often until college age or much later. It’s not a wish fulfillment fantasy, but a reimagining of something that might have been if being LGBTQ+ was more normalised in school.
But isn’t that the whole point, to distract or comfort us? The current state of living right now is absolutely desperate - with crisis upon crisis from all sides. The cost of living, the housing market, the war in Ukraine, the cost of energy bills, the list goes on. Induced or not, teen movies and shows give people a chance to put on rose-tinted glasses for a few hours. It’s a Western plight if ever there was; blocking out the pain and suffering in the world simply because it’s all far too sad.
But isn’t that the whole point, to distract or comfort us? The current state of living right now is absolutely desperate - with crisis upon crisis from all sides.
While Heartstopper is an antidote for a case of the blues, although tear-inducing in places, it’s also a saving grace for the coming-of-age teen shows made in the last decade. While shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls have gotten slack for casting fully grown adults in the parts of teenagers (Charisma Carpenter was 27 playing a 16 year old Cordelia), the show authentically portrayed relatable feelings of teen angst. Buffy foregrounds the battle between the Hellmouth and its monsters while the real struggle is the characters making sense of the world during adolescence.
Riverdale, in all its barely watchable glory, is by far the worst teen series ever made, and fails to get right what Buffy did. The dialogue is spine-chillingly overwrought and cringey, the bored-out-of-their-mind cast deliver flat acting, all topped off by gonzo plotlines. But what’s killed the show’s credibility is none of these things (or unnecessary musical episodes) but forgetting its teen audience.
No more Cheryl diverting that comet; here’s hoping that Heartstopper ushers a new age of down-to-earth teen TV shows with interesting representation.
When teen-queen of Riverdale High Cheryl Blossom discovers her powers as a witch and manages to save the town from being destroyed by a comet, while obviously playing into the trope of sapphic witches, also seen on Buffy, the show doesn’t tread any new ground. Cheryl being a witch is more about trying to tie the show into its spin-off - later cancelled - The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. There’s rose-tinted and then there’s just plain cracked.
No more Cheryl diverting that comet; here’s hoping that Heartstopper ushers a new age of down-to-earth teen TV shows with interesting representation. Vampires and werewolves are great and all, but it’s that sense of familiarity and the promise of youth that keep viewers coming back.