Wondering if the remake of Heartbreak High lives up to its beloved 1990s predecessor? Log into your Netflix account and find out for yourself – the streaming platform’s library contains both titles. Offering a back catalogue of older productions is obviously a good thing (especially for Netflix, which is known for having a terrible selection of classics) but, from the perspective of the new show’s creators, there’s a downside: a vastly better production bearing the same name is just a couple of clicks away.
Only viewers a few eggs short of a dozen could watch both productions and proclaim the new one superior. To see the thrillingly scuzzy, near-vérité oomph of the original – which still packs a punch after all these years – swapped out for the remake’s glossy, homogenised look is a bit, well, heartbreaking. The new series begins with something you’d never see in the old one: a cheesy “nobody could come between us” voice-over monologue delivered by protagonist Amerie (Ayesha Madon), reflecting on her now-troubled relationship with former bestie Harper (Asher Yasbincek), which forms a key part of the drama going forward.
For a long time the show’s mode is pure, inoffensive pap, before it eventually – and messily – lurches into hard-hitting drama. The tone of some of the media coverage suggests a belief that the new Heartbreak High is filling a vast chasm at the heart of Australian television, which isn’t actually true. Several other teen-oriented shows released in recent years cover similar themes and tones to far better results. Here are five of them.
Comedy and sass: The PM’s Daughter (2022)
A narrative centered on the daughter of a newly elected Australian Prime Minister hardly screams “everyday scenario”, yet The PM’s Daughter is broadly appealing and filled with relatable characters. Particularly the protagonist Cat (Cassandra Helmot), who is shown early in the first episode gazing out the window while she describes herself via voiceover as looking like a “cliché brooding teenager.” While Amerie’s opening narration in Heartbreak High is a bit cringey, Cat’s at least introduces her big fill-the-room personality in an enjoyably self-conscious way.
Tristram Baumber and Matthew Allred’s series has spunk and sass from the start, told with a zippy pace that still finds time to contemplate political issues of the day such as climate activism (Cat is an activist herself) and corporate greenwashing. The smartly directed performances are coy without being too self-aware or jokey.
Premature parenthood: Bump (2021-)
The first season of the original Heartbreak High memorably explored teenage pregnancy – initially through a side character in episode 12, and later in a larger thread with a more prominent character, Rose (Katherine Halliday), who eventually gave birth in the science room. Co-created by Claudia Karvan and Kelsey Munro, Bump doesn’t use an unexpected pregnancy as a narrative launching pad, but an unexpected birth. Oly (Nathalie Morris) doesn’t realise she’s pregnant until her water breaks at school, and is understandably shocked to suddenly become a mother, shrieking “get that thing away from me!” once the child is born in hospital.
The tone of the show (which spans two seasons so far, with a third on its way) is endearing, the writers finding humour in difficult circumstances without undercutting their dramatic oomph. Most satisfying is watching Oly grow as a character, becoming a dutiful mother after a rocky start. Like The PM’s Daughter (and unlike the new Heartbreak High) it never feels like it’s trying too hard.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Bump are streaming on Stan now.
Sex and the virtual world: The Hunting (2019)
The issue of sexting is a small part of the new Heartbreak High, and the core focus of this tense four-part series created by Sophie Hyde and Matthew Cormack. The Hunting is a fine example of a show taking one particular social issue as a narrative spine, with various dramatic scenarios and nuances extending from it. The opening episode begins by casting the viewer as voyeur, observing an erotic video call between high school students Zoe (Luca Sardelis) and Andy (Alex Cusack).
Another core tangent hinges on fellow student Amandip (Kavitha Anandasivam) taking a nude photo of herself and sending it to a boy she likes, Nassim (Yazeed Daher). When explicit images of Zoe and Amandip make their way onto a misogynistic website, the shit hits the fan, prompting questions of who is to blame. The Hunting is tight and twitchy, with an uncomfortable energy that nudges into the realm of a thriller. The show communicates a clear message about sexting (don’t do it!) but doesn’t feel pious or lecturesome.
LGBTIQA+ identity: Barracuda (2016)
Robert Connolly’s four-part adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel of the same name revolves around three core elements in the life of its protagonist Darren (James Majoos): his schooling, his swimming and his homosexuality. Having won a swimming scholarship to a private school, Danny is determined to be one of the greats of the pool, dreaming big and training hard – though Barracuda avoids being a chest-beating story about success at all costs.
- READ MORE: From disaffected youth to self-sabotaging adults: Christos Tsiolkas’s characters on screen
Part of the focus is on Danny adapting to his new school. At first there’s tensions with other members of the swimming team, including the captain Martin (Ben Kindon). And then there are sexual tensions. The protagonist’s homosexuality comes out (so to speak) in an unforced way, as a natural part of getting to know a nuanced and layered character. We want Danny to succeed – at swimming, life, love – but we know it won’t be easy.
Colour and bling: Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)
The directors of the Heartbreak High remake followed the memo: keep it looking polished, peppy and colourful. Often however the show’s visual bling comes in the form of small dispensable embellishments, for instance the names of characters appearing on screen in hand-drawn-looking letters. The surprisingly excellent readaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir’s 1975 classic being one hell of an act to follow) is a great example of colour and bling informing everything – sprayed onto the surface from go to whoa, but also reflecting the show’s audacity and spectacle.
The story follows Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), the soon-to-be headmaster of a school for young women. Several of the students – including Irma (Samara Weaving), Marion (Madeleine Madden) and Miranda (Lily Sullivan) – go for a walk and disappear. Most people know the broad beats of this story, but nobody predicted the atmospheric chutzpah used to tell this visually extravagant version. There are long and lingering shots, a blindingly bright colour scheme and tonnes of unsubtle images, from bodies submerged in water to visions of mirrors implying multiple states of reality.