Heartbreak High gets a Gen-Z makeover: ‘We’re giving this generation their own show’

Racier, more diverse and aspirationally cool: the creators behind Netflix’s reboot of the 90s Australian show talk about bringing the trials and tribulations of teens into a new century

For Australians of a certain age, the mere whisper of the Heartbreak High theme music – all early 90s synth tubular bells and surging guitar – is enough to bring on apoplexies of nostalgia. If you were a teen or tween between the years of 1994 and 1999, the daily half hour spent with the students of Hartley High, a rough and tumble state school in Sydney, was the definition of event television.

The idea of a Heartbreak High “reboot”, then, is enough to strike fear into the hearts of Australians staring down their midlife crises and loath to let their foundational 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 when I was a teen; the opening credits music is still a dopamine hit for me,” Chapman says. “I [re]watched every single episode before we got into the plot room.”

Executive producer Carly Heaton remembers those early meetings. “Of course the ‘rack off!’ compilation got sent around, and it ignited everyone sharing their feelings about [the show] and why it was so important,” Heaton says. “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 looked like ours, their houses looked like ours, so it made us all feel really seen.”

The trailer for Netflix’s Heartbreak High.

When the full first season lands on Netflix on 14 September, a new generation of young people will find themselves reflected on screen, with a strikingly diverse cast and an equally diverse writers’ room bringing a depth to Hartley High that old fans may find somewhat lacking when returning to the original show. Younger viewers, meanwhile, may never have seen it; for a long time it was tricky to access Heartbreak High, thanks to music licensing red tape, meaning the reboot’s intended audience comes to it free of baggage.

Netflix’s Heartbreak High is, by virtue of being released on the global streaming giant and not in an afternoon free-to-air timeslot, racier than its predecessor. Framed loosely around a sexual literacy class the students are forced to endure after scandal sweeps the school, the episodes explore consent, peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, and gender and sexuality with a frankness that is, at times, startling.

As for whether original fans will find “co-viewing” opportunities with their own teenagers, Chapman is frank: “There might be fans of the original series who are like ‘What the fuck is this?!’” Even though the original show tackled some racy topics, it’s quite a jump from Matt and Stassy smooching in the school gym or Rivers sleeping with his teacher to someone being alleged to have had a “tongue punch in the fart box” (Season 1, Episode 1, 2022).

(L-R): Josh Heuston, Asher Yasbincek, Brodie Townsend and Bryn Chapman Parish in the new Heartbreak High.
(L-R): Josh Heuston, Asher Yasbincek, Brodie Townsend and Bryn Chapman Parish in the new Heartbreak High. Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

Despite this uptick in “adult themes”, this Heartbreak High feels like a natural companion piece to the original series. “One of Hannah’s phrases that led the writing team was ‘it’s funny ‘til it’s not, then it’s funny again’, and that’s a very Australian way to deal with big issues,” Heaton recalls. That guiding principle is clear in the new series’ navigation of the characters’ lives, finding gentle humour in complex situations, but, like its originator, also knowing when to pull back from laughter.

The reboot maintains the former show’s astute grasp of class issues (in the opening moments, a private school student snorts “Nice car, Centrelink” at a Hartley student’s second hand Ford Falcon), something that set the show apart from its glossy counterparts in Summer Bay and on Ramsay Street. But it also expands the original show’s limited worldview to take in a variety of intersectional experiences of adolescence, such as the vagaries of dating while queer, being closeted, autistic experiences of raging parties, or one First Nations student being 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?’” Heaton says, noting that class was always going to be front and centre. “It’s part of its essence, that lower-to-middle socio economic group; that’s where most of us grew up. We want aspiration, but in the same way Heartbreak did it; they’re cool, and you still want to be them, but there are people struggling, single parent families, people doing shift work. Often TV has portrayed that in terms of the struggle, and it can be very dark, but there’s love and hope in this. Just because you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you don’t have a good life.”

James Majoos, Chloe Hayden and Ayesha Madon.
‘It can be very dark, but there’s love and hope in this’ … James Majoos, Chloe Hayden and Ayesha Madon. Photograph: Elise Lockwood/Netflix

But while the original was “groundbreaking” in its exploration of class and race, Chapman says: “I don’t think at that time we were having the same conversations around queerness and neurodiversity we’re having at the moment.” To explore those themes, they diversified the writers’ room, making sure “those people feel safe enough and empowered enough to put themselves on that screen. It makes it funnier, it makes it more truthful, and I think it hopefully makes for better stories.”

“When we first started this process, I was like ‘We’re gonna have 50 million legacy cast [return for] every episode!’ and it was really something that Fremantle and Netflix [pushed against],” Chapman says. “When we were teenagers we got our own Heartbreak High, and what we’re doing here is giving this generation their own show.”

There is still much in the show that older viewers may find themselves surprised to be so moved by. For me, having grown up unaware that I was autistic, it’s watching Chloe Hayden as autistic student Quinni navigate the social minefields of high school. What might have been different for me had I seen a queer autistic kid walking the halls of Hartley when I was 15?

“[Quinni’s] story, interestingly enough, changed the most throughout this season as we discussed with our autistic representation in the room, and our autistic consultant Kathleen Lee, and with Chloe,” Chapman says. “[Those conversations] made the stories better.”

HEARTBREAK HIGH Season 1 Netflix
(L-R) Gemma Chua-Tran as Sasha, Asher Yasbincek as Harper and Sherry-Lee Watson as Missy. Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

Writers’ room representation was appreciated by the young cast, too. Arrernte actress Sherry-Lee Watson, who plays Missy, told National Indigenous Times: “It was just really refreshing to be in a kind of safe environment where I was able to express myself and put my own cultural mannerisms into my character.” Ayesha Madon, who plays central character Amerie, praised the show’s inclusive approach in an interview: “Australia has been a little bit behind the eight-ball in terms of diversity […] So, it’s nice that we get something that’s cool and genuinely what an Australian experience would be.”

Heartbreak High is the first local commission for Netflix’s Australia/NZ arm – and will see a global audience plunged headfirst into its contemporary Australian teen milieu. It’s something that Chapman and the team are especially proud of. “As an export, the original made me proud to be Australian. Knowing that it was so successful overseas was like, ‘hell yes, this is who we are, this is how we speak, this is how funny we are’. You know, I watched a trailer for the show dubbed in German, and Quinni’s going ‘ich habe eine faule kebab-vagina!’,” she says.

“I hope that Australians watch this and feel proud that something that shows the world who we are is being broadcast worldwide. We have amazing stories to tell.”

  • Heartbreak High premieres on Netflix on 14 September


Clem Bastow

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Netflix announces Heartbreak High reboot for 2022: 'We haven’t had a teen show like it since'
The wildly popular 90s teen series was known for its grittiness and honesty, tackling storylines involving sex, drugs, domestic violence and racism

Stephanie Convery

06, Dec, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
Heartbreak High: Australian hit renewed for a second season on Netflix
Teen drama spends two weeks in streaming platform’s Top 10, while fans drive billions of views on social media

Sian Cain

19, Oct, 2022 @11:35 PM

Article image
Heartbreak High reboot becomes a huge hit for Netflix and on TikTok
Reboot of Australian drama racks up more than 33m hours of viewing time, streaming service reveals, with fans driving 12.4bn views on TikTok

Michael Sun

05, Oct, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
Heartbreak High’s reboot is here. How does it compare to the original?
The 1990s show was beloved for its gritty authenticity and provocative plots. Is Netflix’s shinier reboot trying to do too much at once?

Luke Buckmaster

16, Sep, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Heartbreak High, Rings of Power, Blonde: what’s new to streaming in Australia this September
Plus a starry drama about the Bali bombings, new Rick and Morty and Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson

Luke Buckmaster

04, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Aacta awards 2022: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Mystery Road and Heartbreak High win big
Mandy Walker became the first female to win best cinematographer for Elvis, which beat out the Drover’s Wife and the Stranger in most film categories

Kelly Burke

07, Dec, 2022 @9:34 AM

Article image
The Tourist, Byron Baes, Muster Dogs and more: the 14 best Australian TV shows of 2022
From drama to documentary, comedy to cartoons, here’s the television our critics loved in 2022

Luke Buckmaster, Beejay Silcox, Nathan Jolly, Walter Marsh, Jared Richards, Patrick Lenton and Andrew P Street

28, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
I died in the original Heartbreak High. Now with the Netflix reboot, people are asking for my autograph in barber shops | Elly Varrenti
Watching the new TV show sparked memories of a ’94 summer of group bonding, 6am pickups and the most positive acting experience I’ve ever had

Elly Varrenti

23, Sep, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
From Wednesday and Matilda to NYE fireworks: the best things for children to watch this weekend
Exhausted by the festive season? You’re not alone. Here’s a bunch of films and streams to keep kids of all ages occupied around Australia

Luke Buckmaster with Nick Miller

29, Dec, 2022 @11:00 PM

Article image
Heartbreak High review – the 90s Aussie drama meets Mean Girls, but with more sex
Rack off, Drazic! Netflix takes us back to Hartley High with the next generation of big-hearted teens. If you love Sex Education, try this immediately

Rebecca Nicholson

14, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM