Few settings invite drama, messy emotions and chaos like a high school.
The original 1990s Heartbreak High ran for seven seasons and was broadcast in over 70 countries including the UK, US, Germany, Argentina, Mexico, India and Indonesia. The show followed a cast of students at a multicultural Sydney high school and became an icon of Aussie TV. It stood out as an honest and gritty depiction of teen life, especially compared against the “squeaky clean” visions in other dramas of the time.
Now, a new reboot under showrunner Hannah Carroll Chapman revisits the fictional Hartley High in 2022, dealing with issues and themes relevant to a contemporary audience.
Heartbreak High will find its place alongside series like Netflix’s Sex Education and HBO’s Euphoria exploring the often grimy realities of modern adolescence with style and humour.
But here we have a uniquely Australian take on the current wave of teen dramas.
A new class
Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek) have been ride-or-die best friends since childhood. Their greatest project is a map of all the hook-ups and romantic entanglements at Hartley High, drawn in a secret, out-of-bounds stairwell.
When the map is discovered, Amerie gets blamed, and an unlikely group of students find themselves stuck together in “Sexual Literacy Tutorials”.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Harper turns up to school with a shaved head and a mysterious vendetta against Amerie.
With her social life turned upside down, Amerie falls in with class misfits Darren (James Majoos) and Quinni (Chloe Hayden). From here, she must repair her reputation, figure out what’s wrong with Harper, and navigate the rocky terrain of romance, sexuality and heartbreak.
The series is an echo of contemporary teen culture. Pop culture references and slang like “unalive” and “flop era” will date the episodes, but for now Heartbreak High is an effective mirror of modern life.
Much like the original series gave us a diverse set of characters, this series refreshingly reflects the diversity of today’s high schools.
Our heroine Amerie and her two love interests, long-time crush Dusty (Josh Heuston) and sweet new boy in town Malakai (Thomas Weatherall), are all characters of colour.
Darren is non-binary, out and proud but dealing with parents who complain Darren’s gender identity and singular they/them pronouns are “too confusing”.
Quinni is queer and autistic, with one episode sympathetically exploring her difficulties with dating and trying to mask and appear “normal”.
These teenagers all face their own unique issues, but also find themselves dealing with universal ups and downs every viewer will be able to relate to.
Let’s talk about sex
As the Hartley High hook-up map would imply, teen sexuality is at the core of the story.
Heartbreak High uses this plot device not just for love triangles and drama, but as a chance to interrogate how we talk to teenagers about sex.
The Sexual Literacy Tutorials – or “SLTs”, which the students point out ironically sounds like “sluts” – provide some wonderfully awkward scenes.
The school’s sex education curriculum is full of outdated language and knowledge gaps, leaving the staff woefully (but amusingly) unprepared for 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 nuanced discussion of consent – to mixed results.
As the bright pink dildo stuck to the school’s basketball court proves, sex is very much present and unavoidable in the high school environment, whether the scandalised school board likes it or not.
The question is how to broach the topic in a nuanced way that keeps those vulnerable students safe.
Heartbreak High’s writing follows from Jojo’s example. When sex is depicted between the characters, the dialogue emphasises the importance (and joy) of consent. The framing makes the scenes intimate without sexualising the teenagers themselves.
The frank depiction of female sexuality and queer sexuality is also refreshing, whether it’s comedic scenes of Amerie being too horny to concentrate, or a matter-of-fact discussion of the average labia size.
Complicated, messy lives
This reboot is a bright new piece of Australian television, running on an engaging blend of comedy and drama.
It doesn’t shy away from serious topics such as drug use, youth crime or discrimination. But it also provides plenty of moments of levity, letting its characters joke around about everything from astrology, to erections, to bad haircuts.
Heartbreak High avoids cliche and shows its teen heroes as complicated, messy people the audience can root for – even when they make mistakes.
Heartbreak High is streaming on Netflix from September 14.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Alex Henderson, University of Canberra.
Alex Henderson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.