Hit Netflix show resonates with ‘universal state of teendom’

The reboot of an Australian cult-classic 1990s show has scored an elusive renewal for a second season by Netflix after debuting to international acclaim.

Netflix announced on Thursday a second season of Heartbreak High after the show reached the site’s top-10 TV shows list in 43 countries and amassed more than 42 million hours of views following its September premiere.

One of the biggest Australian releases of the year, the show has been lauded for its diversity of characters, representations of neuro-diverse people, gender identity and modern teen culture.

Netflix show by the people, for the people

Marc C-Scott, Victoria University senior lecturer in screen media, told The New Daily that compared to previous screen exports, Heartbreak High paints a more relevant – and realistic – picture of diverse Australian society and social issues.

“Whether it be around LGBTQ, whether it be around various … aspects, culturally and socially … it covered so much that everyone was going to gain something from it,” he said.

“[Heartbreak High] wasn’t ducking or weaving in any way. It was being quite upfront with those topics.”

Heartbreak High features a kaleidoscope of Australian faces from multicultural backgrounds including South Asia, Nigeria and South Africa, along with two First Nations actors Thomas Weatherall (Malakai) and Sherry-Lee Watson (Missy).

Gender- and neuro-diverse characters are played by actors with lived experience, including James Majoos and Chloé Hayden.

Jessica Balanzategui, senior lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, says the show does away with teen stereotypes largely imported from the US, and captures the “fluidity of teen identity”.

“What’s so compelling and intriguing about Heartbreak High is that it taps quite effectively into nostalgia, but in doing so it also shows how far we’ve come when it comes to content for teen audiences,” she said.

“Teen content, perhaps more so than any other type of content, always relied quite a bit in the past on stereotypes and … the new Heartbreak High is very aware of how these kinds of stereotypes don’t fly with young audiences any more. They’ve been deconstructed over a couple of decades of really self-aware teen content.”

Through the diversity in characters and storylines, Dr Balanzategui said the show taps into a similar vein as hit US show Euphoria, and shows Australian teens have a similarly progressive way of thinking.

“It’s refreshing to see that on a global stage,” she said.

Issues resonate with young and old

The show’s reach has been wide, with #heartbreakhigh enjoying more than 300 million views on TikTok – a sure sign it has the attention of the world’s younger generation.

Some of the appeal for Heartbreak High‘s is because of its realistic  dialogue by the show’s writers who include BIPOC and LGBTQI+ talent like Thomas Wilson-White and Meyne Wyatt.

The show’s writers also reportedly allowed the young cast to add their own spin on scripts to help maintain authenticity and relevance to modern teens.

But this doesn’t mean the show’s audience completely excludes older generations.

Dr Balanzategui said the show continues the trend of Netflix’s nostalgia-soaked reboots, or new shows shot to transport viewers back to the pre-2000s, such as worldwide hit Stranger Things.

The retro look of the series resonates with older audiences. Photo: Netflix

“The new Heartbreak High is very aware of its dual audience,” she said.

“I’m one of those people that watched the show in the ’90s … for many of us, it was really formative to our developing identities.

“So the show was speaking to that adult audience who are very nostalgic, but also obviously talking to contemporary young people and teens in a really authentic way.”

Anna Potter, associate professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, said the driver for international popularity also lies in the show’s portrayal of the “universal state of teendom”.

“The universal themes in Heartbreak High apply to teenagers all over the world,” Dr Potter said.

“Those coming-of-age stories, mental health issues, gender, sexual violence, teens all over the world are dealing with those issues on a daily basis.”

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