For Australians of a certain age, the mere murmur of the theme music from Heartbreak High – all early 90s synth tube bells and soaring guitar – is enough to cause apoplexy of nostalgia. If you were a teenager or tween between the years 1994 and 1999, the daily half hour spent with students at Hartley High, a public school in Sydney, was the definition of event television.
So the idea of a Heartbreak High ‘reboot’ is enough to strike fear into the hearts of Australians who watch their midlife crises and are loath to let their founding text evolve to find a new audience. It’s a tension that the new series’ writer and creator, Hannah Carroll Chapman, is acutely aware of. “I was obsessed with the show as a teenager; the opening credits music is always a dopamine hit for me,” Chapman says. “I [re]watched every episode before entering the plot room.
Executive producer Carly Heaton remembers those early encounters. “Sure the ‘rack off!’ compilation was sent, and it ignited everyone sharing their feelings about [the show] and why it was so important,” says Heaton. “It was that authenticity, I think. There was a level of aspiration – you know, they didn’t have uniforms and they were cool – but their families were like ours, their homes were like ours, so we all felt really seen.
When the full first season hits Netflix on September 14, a new generation of young people will find themselves on screen, with a surprisingly diverse cast and an equally diverse writers’ room bringing depth to Hartley High that old fans might find. somewhat missing. when returning to the original broadcast. Younger viewers, meanwhile, may have never seen it; for a long time, Heartbreak High was difficult to get to, thanks to the music licensing bureaucracy, meaning the reboot’s intended audience gets there without baggage.
Netflix’s Heartbreak High is, because it airs on the global streaming giant and not in a free afternoon time slot, more racy than its predecessor. Framed loosely around a sexual literacy class students are forced to take after scandal swept through the school, the episodes explore consent, peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, as well as gender and sexuality with a sometimes surprising frankness.
On whether original fans will find “co-watching” opportunities with their own teenagers, Chapman is candid: “There might be some fans of the original series who are like, ‘What the hell is that? what the fuck?!” some racy topics, it’s quite a leap from Matt and Stassy smooching in the school gymnasium or Rivers sleeping with his teacher to someone who allegedly had a “lick in the fart box” (Season 1 , Episode 1, 2022).
Despite this increase in “adult themes,” this Heartbreak High feels like a natural companion to the original series. “One of Hannah’s lines leading the writing team was ‘it’s funny until it’s gone then it’s funny again’, and that’s a very Australian way to deal with the big problems,” recalls Heaton. This guiding principle is clear in the new series’ navigation of the characters’ lives, finding gentle humor in complex situations but, like its author, also knowing when to pull back from the laughter.
The reboot maintains the old show’s shrewd understanding of class issues (in the opening moments, a private school student sniffs “Nice car, Centrelink” at a Hartley student’s used Ford Falcon), something that sets the show apart from its shiny counterparts in Summer Bay and on Ramsay Street. But it also expands the limited worldview of the original show to take into account a variety of intersectional experiences of adolescence, such as the vagaries of dating while queer, being cooped up, the autistic experiences of wild parties or a First Nations student mistaken for another.
“[Heartbreak High] was groundbreaking for its time, so the team sat down and thought “What are the things that need to be discussed now?’ says Heaton, noting that class was always going to be front and center. “It is part of its essence, this lower to middle socio-economic group; it’s where most of us grew up. We want aspiration, but in the same way Heartbreak did; they’re cool, and you always want to be them, but there are struggling people, single-parent families, people who work shifts. A lot of times TV has portrayed this in terms of struggle, and it can be very dark, but there’s love and hope in that. Just because you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you don’t have a good life.
But while the original was “groundbreaking” in its exploration of class and race, Chapman says: “I don’t think at that time we had the same conversations about homosexuality and neurodiversity that we have. right now.” To explore these themes, they diversified the writers room, making sure “these people feel safe enough and empowered enough to put themselves on this screen. It makes it funnier, it makes it more truthful, and I think it hopefully makes for better stories.
“When we started this process, I was like, ‘We’re going to have 50 million legacy actors. [return for] every episode!’ and it was really something that Fremantle and Netflix [pushed against]says Chapman. “When we were teenagers, we had our own Heartbreak High, and what we’re doing here is giving this generation their own show.”
There are still a lot of things about the show that older viewers may be surprised to be so moved about. For me, having grown up not knowing I was autistic is watching Chloe Hayden as autistic student Quinni navigate the social minefields of high school. What might have been different for me if I had seen a queer autistic child walking the halls of Hartley when I was 15?
“[Quinni’s] Interestingly enough, the story changed the most throughout this season as we chatted with our autistic representation in the room, and our autistic consultant Kathleen Lee, and with Chloe,” Chapman explains. “[Those conversations] made the stories better.
The writers room portrayal was also appreciated by the young cast. Arrernte actress Sherry-Lee Watson, who plays Missy, Told National Indigenous Times: “It was really refreshing to be in a kind of safe environment where I was able to express myself and put my own cultural ways into my character.” Ayesha Madon, who plays the central character of Amerie, praised the show’s inclusive approach in a interview: “Australia have been a little behind on the eight ball in terms of diversity […] So it’s good that we have something cool and really what an Aussie experience would be like.
Heartbreak High is the first local order for the Australian/New Zealand branch of Netflix – and will see global audiences immersed headfirst into its contemporary Australian teenage milieu. It’s something that Chapman and the team are particularly proud of. “As an export, the original made me proud to be Australian. Knowing that it was such a hit overseas was like, ‘Yeah, that’s who we are, that’ is how we talk, that’s how we’re funny.’ You know, I watched a trailer for the show dubbed in German, and Quinni goes’ich habe eine faule kebab-vagina!‘,” she says.
“I hope Australians will watch this and be proud that something that shows the world who we are is being broadcast around the world. We have amazing stories to tell.