I binge-watched the entire first season of ‘Heartbreak High’ – and it remains vital Australian television

The beloved drama is getting a Netflix remake next year. The streaming platform has its work cut out for it

These days a critic does not expect to be congratulated or even acknowledged for binge-watching an entire season of a TV show; in the era of the autoplay button it is considered par for the course. The slightly showboaty part of me, however, does crave some recognition for smashing through every single episode of the first season of beloved Australian drama Heartbreak High.

Not because it was a chore (far from it) but due to the sheer, butt-flattening size of it, this introductory season running for 38 episodes, each one the length of a TV hour (a tad under 45 minutes). The experience gave me a finer appreciation of vintage Australian television, to be sure, as well as a significantly greater risk of developing deep vein thrombosis.

I approached the task of rewatching the series (which premiered in 1994) with some trepidation, having only vague memories of what it was like to spend time at Hartley High, its school of hard knocks and central setting, situated in a multicultural suburb of Sydney. To my surprise, the show still packs a visceral charge all these years later, coming on with a hot streetside intensity that brings to mind words such as “verisimilitude” and “vérité” – adjectives not often associated with long-running TV serials.

In one episode late in the season, a visitor from the education department describes Hartley High as a “a modern, progressive, multicultural high school that we can all be proud of”. A similar point can be made of the show itself. Created by Michael Jenkins and Ben Gannon, it too is progressive– exploring, intelligently and compassionately, topics related to the teenage experience that are still difficult to depict today. And indeed it is a production its makers – and the local TV industry more broadly – can remain proud of. Netflix, which has just announced its cast for a reboot due out 2022, has its work cut out for it.

This is not a series that observes renegade yoof from a cerebral distance

Presenting an electric portrait of life at school from both student and teacher perspectives, the series immerses audiences in the lives of multi-dimensional characters from ethnically varied backgrounds. The key characters include Greek-Australian teenager Nick Poulos (Alex Dimitriades), his cousin Con (Salvatore Coco) and on-again-off-again girlfriend Jodie (Abi Tucker). There’s also Rose (Katherine Halliday), who is Lebanese-Australian; Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez), who is Salvadoran; Jack (Tai Nguyen), who is Vietnamese-Australian; as well as Steve (Corey Page), Peter (Scott Major), Danielle (Emma Roche) and others.

The staff at Hartley High include no-nonsense science teacher Bill (Tony Martin); Lebanese-Australian guidance counselor Yola (Doris Younane); maths and music teacher Graham (Hugh Baldwin), who is gay; and new English teacher Christina (Sarah Lambert). The latter’s arrival at the school gives the show’s initial arc a Dangerous Minds-esque setup: an attractive young teacher crosses the wrong side of the tracks to teach tough students, trying to find new ways to make old classroom materials engaging.

But whereas the Bruckheimer-produced Michelle Pfeiffer movie (which arrived a year after the show premiered) falls into neat formula, with clean production values and spit-polished writing, Heartbreak High has a rawness that gives the drama a searing quality. When the characters clash with each other, ideologically – such as the adults debating different approaches to teaching – or physically and violently, you really feel it. Tension ripples from the screen.

This is not a series that observes renegade yoof from a cerebral distance: it jumps into the fray and throws metaphorical dirt on the lens. When an early fight breaks out between Jack and Peter, both hotheads putting themselves in a position where they believe they can’t back down, the camera gets among the action – moving, careening, darting forwards and backwards, as if it were a student in the thick of it, visually capturing the scene’s emotional stakes.

Anybody who remembers the season finale knows the first word in the show’s title isn’t overstating it

The writers use the central setting as a microcosm of society and a springboard to explore issues that still resonate despite obvious changes to the school yard (for example there are, of course, no smartphones or social media). These include freedom of the press (episode two, about the closure of the school’s student magazine), socio-economic disadvantage (episode seven, in which Hartley kids enter a debating competition with a well-off school), homophobia (episode 14, in which Graham is falsely accused of harassment by a student with a fanatically religious family), attitudes towards Australian identity (episode 20, when Bill asks for the national anthem to be sung daily) and adoption (episode 32, about Steve trying to find his biological parents).

Anybody who remembers the season finale – which I won’t spoil despite the statute of limitations well and truly passing – knows the first word in the show’s title isn’t overstating it. The series is peppered with high drama, ranging from heart-wrenching surprises (including the deaths of key characters) to softly melancholic farewells (when teachers leave the school, for instance) to resolutions that feel not so much shocking as sadly inevitable – see the culmination of a sexual relationship between Peter, a student, and a new teacher played by Kym Wilson.

The performances are uniformly impressive, Heartbreak High being a formative production for numerous actors including Alex Dimitriades, who warmed up for his role with the 1993 feature film The Heartbreak Kid. This film, decently made but nowhere near as good as its TV progeny, served as a rough blueprint for several of the show’s key elements, particularly the high school setting. Several other actors migrated from the film to the show, including Scott Major, Katherine Halliday, Doris Younane and Nick Lathouris, who plays Nick’s father in both productions and – fun fact – later co-wrote Mad Max: Fury Road.

Don’t believe anybody who refers to Heartbreak High as a “soap opera.” Those ugly words evoke images of houses on Ramsay Street, The Diner in Summer Bay, and countless middling “who’s shagging who?” dramas from the likes of Days of Our Lives. Soap opera sentimentality and melodrama is not the Heartbreak High experience – at least not in the first season. When the final credits rolled, I leapt to my feet and lunged for the remote control, fearing what would happen – the time I would lose, the deep vein thrombosis I might develop – if the autoplay button kicked in and loaded season two.

The original Heartbreak High is streaming on Netflix

Advertisement

More TV Stories:

Advertisement