Elle discusses the ways in which Heartbreak High 2022 diverges from other Gen Z oriented media, and why labelling the show a reboot does it a favour.
The renewal of the Australian comedy-drama series, Heartbreak High, has sparked discussion about Netflix’s current influx of ‘Gen Z shows’, including Sex Education, Grand Army and Never Have I Ever. Many have noticed similarities among these modern teen dramas, what with their gritty subject matter, often exploring topics like sexual assault, discrimination, substance abuse, and complicated relationships.
In addition to their insistence on gritty themes, these shows have been criticised for reusing certain tropes. These include the persistent casting of adults over the age of 25 to play 16 year olds, the sporadic use of slang and pop culture references which make for obscure dialogue, as well as clunky costumes that feel overstated for the sake of ‘characterisation’. While Heartbreak High can definitely be criticised for utilising these same tropes, there is something the show gets right about our generational identity.
It is important to note that the series is a reboot (so no points for originality), but I would argue that Heartbreak High was not created as a calculated industry move, or a cheap money grab for the studio, but instead as a homage to its predecessor in an attempt to reconnect to younger audiences. Que Minh Luu, Netflix’s content director for Australia, said that the show is “also for the 90s kids, fans of the original series who remember what it’s like to feel understood by a TV show”, and I would have to agree with her: the show feels different from its contemporaries in its handling of multiculturalism, consent, and issues of coming of age. Furthermore, the reboot demonstrates the progression of cultural norms, gender and race, and this alone exemplifies why a reboot can be impactful: a direct comparison provides greater understanding of the way society, and specifically youth culture, have changed over time.
With a lack of genuine representation of young people in the media, series like Heartbreak High have a more profound impact. Praised for its diverse cast, the show highlights the intersectional nature of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and disability. The show also makes sure that its representation is genuine, as can be seen in the case of Quinni. Their character is autistic, and they are rightly played by an actress who has autism: Chloe Hayden. They recalled this being “one of the first times in history we’ve seen an autistic person played by an autistic person, and the first autistic Australian actor to co-lead a series point blank period”. In addition, the cast includes Kamilaroi actor, Thomas Weatherall, and Arrente actress, Sherry-Lee Watson, who represent their First Nation heritage on screen. Furthermore, this inclusivity is not only for the cameras, as many of the writers and production team are also Aboriginal Australians, which led actress Sherry-Lee Watson to express: “I’m very privileged to be kind of part of this first global representation of Indigeneity, of Australia Indigeneity.”
Que Minh Luu said that “the new Heartbreak High is for young people in Australia today to feel seen – showcasing their stories, senses of humour and aesthetics to the world and reminding everyone that they are much, much cooler than us”. Indeed, having people narrate their own stories and struggles on screen allows for a fresh and individualised representation of the coming of age story, and one that captures the nuances of understanding your identity, making and maintaining friendships, and navigating familial problems.
While Heartbreak High is set for another season, many of its similar counterparts have not been so lucky, as limited budgets and minimal marketing have led most of them to be cancelled after the first season. It is telling that many of the shows which portray a more inclusive view of the world find it very hard to get funding and support, and are consequently forced to create a close bond with their audience to stay afloat. This limitation, in contrast to other shows such as Riverdale, which seem to receive an unfounded amount of money and infinite season renewals from streaming services, perhaps explain why this kind of show might want to be packaged as a reboot. It allows viewers, both old and new, to have more influence over the show’s trajectory, and maybe even undermines the wishes of big media companies such as Netflix.