Beloved Australian 1990s series Heartbreak High opened with such a whoosh of adrenaline, such a shock of verisimilitude, it begged to be described using words like “gritty” and “vérité.” The ditching of a stock-standard daytime aesthetic stylistically distinguished the series from countless TV dramas and the central location, Hartley High, felt like a real high school – not a place plastered with white faces from wall to wall.
That near-vérité style perfectly matched the authenticity of the characters and storylines, which incorporated Australians of Greek, Italian, Vietnamese and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Running for more than 200 episodes across seven seasons, the show was eventually turfed into the bucket labeled “soap opera” – but for a while there it was thrillingly unique.
Netflix’s remake, created by Hannah Carroll Chapman, demonstrates very different stylistic priorities: namely the creation of a polished atmosphere coupled with an upbeat, lighthearted tone. Chapman implied a desire to create a stylistically different production when she told Guardian Australia: “We’re giving this generation their own show.” For a fan of the original, it was a shock to see the new one commence with a cheesy “nobody could come between us” slab of voiceover narration spoken by the protagonist Amerie (Ayesha Madon), reminiscing on her friendship with Harper (Asher Yasbincek). That relationship is put under pressure, along with Amerie’s other friendships, after it’s exposed that they painted an “incest map” on a school wall, detailing sexual encounters between students.
The reboot signals early on that we’re in for a change of tone. When principal Woodsy (Rachel House) asks Amerie to leave her office at the count of three, her cute jack russell – whose name is (wait for it) Joan of Bark – barks exactly on the pronunciation of each number. This contrived audience-pandering gimmick – an exacting piece of post-production – differs starkly to a scene in the first episode of the original series, in which a fight breaks out in the schoolyard. The camera gets among it and pulls us into the action: bobbing and weaving as if it were a person caught up in the brawl. The remake creates a safe distance between the drama and viewer; the original made us uncomfortably close.
The original’s authenticity also came down to its characters: a broad crosshatch of people from the community, not just ethnically diverse but with clashing political perspectives and worldviews. Despite its commendable embrace of diversity along race, gender, sexuality and neurological lines, there are only traces of political clashes in the new series – mainly through the personality of Spider (Bryn Chapman Parish), who has some similarities to Rivers (played by Scott Major, who returns in a small role) from the original. The new version of Hartley High feels like a school largely populated by progressive, alternative types – the kind of kids who express interest in joining a queer environmental social justice club (episode three) or crave “good almond milk” (episode five).
The cast of kids project sass and spark (James Majoos’ charmingly headstrong performance as non-binary character Darren is a particular standout) but the new series struggles with authenticity throughout. Among the problems is dialogue that feels a little “how do you do, fellow kids?”. In one episode, for instance, Darren scolds a fellow student for being “jammed so far in the closet you’re practically in Narnia”. Would a teenager really invoke CS Lewis to fuel a zinger?
The reboot’s writers (Chapman, with Matthew Whittet, Marieke Hardy, Meyne Wyatt, Thomas Wilson-White and Natesha Somasundaram) mostly disregard the emotional tone of its predecessor, implied by the first word of its title. Heartbreak High was not a show where things end happily ever after; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the crestfallen face, so utterly consumed by grief, of Nick Lathouris’ character George Poulos after the death of his wife in season one. By the end of that season poor George had also lost his son – played by the show’s principal star, Alex Dimitriades – to a brain aneurysm. Yep: they even killed off the protagonist. The new series does ultimately attempt to explore grief and heartbreak but it’s very much a secondary priority.
The remake also fumbles in its exploration of provocative ideas; many screenwriters, afraid of offending audiences or hurting their careers, seem to be relegating difficult topics to the “too hard” basket right now. (One notable Australian exception in recent years is the brave Why Are You Like This.) The original Heartbreak High entered several precarious spaces, such as a sexual relationship between teacher and student, without (at least in its first season, which I recently rewatched) championing bad behaviour or dictating a moral point of view. The original was also much more dedicated to fleshing out the school’s staff – from Tony Martin’s hard-nosed science teacher to Yola Fatoush’s empathetic guidance counsellor. English teacher Jojo (Chika Ikogwe) gets a small role in the remake but we never come away feeling we really know or understand her.
There are flickers here and there of the new show seriously attempting to confront difficult contemporary issues. The fourth episode illustrates police violence but this unconvincingly staged scene is soon pushed aside; the writers seem more interested in examining the emotional fallout of a threesome. Episode six involves a character who has chlamydia but the seriousness of it is undercut by having her rehearse a speech to the aforementioned patron saint: Joan of Bark.
The last couple of episodes ratchet up in intensity. But by this point, wrenching drama is an awkward fit, given the creators have worked so hard to capture a sense of bushy-tailed energy. Perhaps the lesson is that tone and aesthetic inform everything. Go for peppy and polished, like the new Heartbreak High, and it’s very hard for actors to cut through when they’re asked to suddenly switch to hard-hitting drama. Go for vérité, like the original, and you might create something substantial that keeps people talking for decades.
• The Heartbreak High reboot is now streaming on Netflix