Since its premiere last month, the new series “Heartstopper” has become a standout hit for Netflix, which is all the more impressive given the deluge of streaming content each week. But watching one or two episodes, it’s easy to see why it has become so popular. It’s a coming-of-identity story for young adults that doesn’t talk down to its viewers, many of them more the age of the young heroes in this story than the adults. And it does so in a way that’s only radical by older standards—it doesn’t want points for telling a story that freely breezes between characters who are gay, bisexual, transgender, and whatever else they identify as. But sometimes a show deserves a great deal of credit for its graceful storytelling, and “Heartstopper” is such a noteworthy example.
The power of the series, written by Alice Oseman (adapting her novel of the same name) comes in part from its pitch-perfect young performances, who articulate these different firsts in life with a consistent honesty and muted vulnerability. At the center of this universe is the gentle and sensitive Charlie (Joe Locke), who is out to his fellow students, but who also hides during lunch in the art room, and has a toxic relationship with a boy who is not out and forces him to meet up in secret. Charlie develops a crush on Nick (Kit Connor), a boy who is not only a year older than him, but he also plays rugby and has popular friends. But Nick starts a friendship with Charlie, so much that he even convinces Charlie to join the rugby team. Charlie can’t believe that Nick wants to hang out with him, while Nick starts to wonder if he likes Charlie as more than a friend—that this is only the beginning of “Heartstopper” shows how the series evolves its internal conflicts while always staying sweet.
There are other colorful characters in the mix, who branch out from two different friend groups. Charlie is a fellow outcast with cinephile Tao (William Gao) and observant bookworm Isaac (Tobie Donovan), a trio that used to be a quartet before Elle transferred to the neighboring girl’s school, Higgs. Elle has the shyness of a new kid while harboring some type of bigger feelings for Tao. But Elle finds support, friendship, and comfort in band musicians Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) and Tara (Corinna Brown), who often eat alone at lunch. Darcy and Tara are in a relationship that isn’t public in the story’s beginning, but the series follows the different emotions they experience when it becomes wider known.
Across eight “chapters,” “Heartstopper” proves adept at expanding its narrative scope, and only starts to flag midway through episode seven, when it creates some drama between Tao and Charlie, related to something that reads pretty obvious—it’s the largest moment in which the show feels like it is trying to force drama. But the series is strong enough that the more unresolved romantic threads in seven and eight still hold interest and create enough tension, especially as we root for everyone to find the happiness in someone else. By this point, it’s far from just Charlie’s show, and everyone has a rich internal arc related to how and who they want to love.
Even the adults in the mix show the good heart that the series has. Olivia Colman has a brief but effective placement as Nick’s mum, the kind of parent who is loving but also doesn’t realize the kind of box they could be placing their child in by saying “another girl will come around,” etc. But the MVP has to be Fisayo Akinade as Mr. Ajayi, who has the kind of wisdom that Charlie needs to hear without making it too saccharine. Akinade’s straight-shooting performance provides just enough urgency to his advice—about not hiding, and embracing oneself. A special nod also to Stephen Fry, who has a few funny moments over the intercom in brief moments.
The style of the series, directed by Euros Lyn of the recent Toni Collette crowd-pleaser “Dream Horse,” may be nothing new—animated leaves, hearts, and sparks swoop around lovestruck characters like generic indie fare, the sad ballads drive one montage after the next—but there is plenty that is refreshing about how it’s all told. “Heartstopper” is itself an acoustic piece, one with no excess space in its universe of relationships, making for quick-paced episodes. Curiously, the plotting is very much about tracking these experiences, so much that sometimes it can be a little clinical, like when we watch Charlie and Nick text one night—the bated breaths, the intense stakes of seeing the three dots for when someone is typing, and the feeling when they vanish. The scene might take up five minutes, but it’s also honest, quietly, to how the conversation would play out. That becomes a big charm of it—that while the story is full of heart-swelling moments and emotional crescendos, it also tries to be ordinary. There are not broad emotions, but the vigor, or pain, that comes with building a romantic relationship.
In its more subtle fashion, “Heartstopper” also becomes about not putting people into boxes about their gender, sexual orientation, or even what they like. That’s an effective idea, delivered not just with its story but about characters—yes, a video game nerd like Charlie can also be a rugby player, or one of the most popular kids in school can be deeply sensitive and sincere, even if the people he originally calls his friends are homophobic jackasses. And there’s a poignant resistance to binary and old-fashioned thinking by these events taking place at all boys and all-girls schools, venues that can easily perpetuate homophobia and close-minded thinking.
“Heartstopper” touches on all of these ideas, its genuine ideological passions, with great emotional intelligence, while also featuring striking scenes about consent, or the benefits of honesty, even when it means hurting someone’s feeling. It’s the kind of gem that rarely pushes its characters and their stories. Instead, it allows them to feel as gradual and real as possible, ensuring that its wisdom within strikes especially true. [A-]