The return of ‘Heartbreak High’: “The teen story is universal, but we’re Australian”

Take it from this cast of rising stars – Netflix’s reboot of the ‘90s Australian hit is its own beast, neither a nostalgia grab nor an attempt to make the Aussie ‘Euphoria’

Let’s get this out of the way: you’ll only hear one “Rack off!” in Netflix’s Heartbreak High reboot. In the ’90s original, which ran for seven seasons and aired across 70 countries – just behind the reach of Australia’s biggest successes, Neighbours and Home & Away, and a huge feat in the pre-streaming era – the insult was thrown around so often that it’s arguably the show’s greatest legacy.

But the reboot isn’t a nostalgia play. Instead, it takes the core of what made the original a hit and pushes it into 2022 with startling frankness. Instead of trying to fashion a new Drazic, Con or Christina, the show centres on Amerie (Ayesha Madon), whose social ambitions entering Year 11 are upended when her best friend Harper (Asher Yasbineck) dumps her – and she’s solely blamed for the fallout when the duo’s “incest map”, detailing every hook-up (real or rumoured) in their year, is discovered.

Over the course of eight episodes, creator Hannah Carroll Chapman (The Heights) and her cast shake up up the conventional image of what Australia looks like with a diversity of characters and experiences, dealing with issues of prejudice, sex and class.

Thomas Weatherall
Thomas Weatherall. Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

“What was groundbreaking back then about that show is almost the norm today,” says Bundjalung actor Thomas Weatherall, who plays Hartley High’s new transfer student, Malakai. “And kids are so much more aware – I can’t speak to exactly how they felt back then, but you can’t bullshit them now.”

“[We wanted to] make sure that we weren’t talking down to teenagers by preaching to them or condescending to them,” says Will McDonald, who plays sensitive lad/eshay Ca$H. “We treated them like the smart young people that they are.”

Heartbreak High premieres today (September 14) – before you dive in, hear from five of its stars what’s in store.

It’s grounded and gritty – certainly not the Australian Euphoria

Despite their model good looks and the fact that Hartley High is one of a handful of Australian schools lacking a uniform, these Heartbreak High teens are much more grounded than the likes of those in the heavily stylised world Euphoria.

These teens wrestle with heavy topics like assault, ableism and racism. Characters drive beat-up second-hand cars across Sydney, have unglamorous part-time jobs and they actually attend classes (without wearing designer clothing they couldn’t afford). Despite its dramatics and disproportionate teen death rate, the original was celebrated for its visceral rawness, which the reboot wanted to hold onto.

McDonald remembers the pilot episode of the original, which centres on a fight in school, as “a bomb going off”. “Our show honours the legacy of the show, and is a continuation of it.”

If anything, the reboot combines the original’s rawness with the charm of Netflix’s own Sex Education or Never Have I Ever: teen dramas that revel in the awkwardness of being a teen.

Bryn Chapman Parish and Brodie Townsend
Brodie Townsend and Bryn Chapman Parish. Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

“I don’t think you need too much that’s different,” says Brodie Townsend, who plays the affable Ant, when asked about the inevitable comparisons. “I mean, the teen story is universal, but we’re Australian. I think it’s fun and has a lot of twists and turns that others don’t have as much. It can get pretty shocking!”

That said, there is one fair comparison to Euphoria: Heartbreak High’s similarly tastemaking soundtrack, a who’s who of beloved and emerging Australian artists like Genesis Owusu, Tkay Maidza, Budjerah, Sycco and more.

It reflects Australia like never before

Just as the original Heartbreak High helped expand conceptions of what counted as ‘Australian stories’, the reboot is bringing a landmark diversity to our screens in terms of race, sexuality and neurodivergence.

“I think audiences can expect a lot of really new Australian stories that have never been told before and a lot of characters that we’ve never seen on Australian TV before,” says McDonald. “I’m really excited to see how people respond to that these characters and these storylines that have probably never been touched on in Australian TV.”

While Australia’s TV landscape remains disproportionately white and Anglo-saxon, more than half of the core roles in Heartbreak High are people of colour, including two First Nations characters in the show: Malakai and Missy, the latter played by Arrernte actress Sherry-Lee Watson. The diversity was reflected across the writer’s room and crew too, with both actors telling the National Indigenous Times that it helped them feel comfortable on set.

“[It’s] important as well to feel that connection on set and in a table read and that kind of thing,” said Weatherall, “to actually see other mob around the place and feel good about the inclusivity without it feeling tokenistic.”

Part of this was due to Chapman’s insistence on collaborating with the actors to bring characters to life. The three main roles – Hartley High pariah Amerie and her newfound friends Darren (James Majoos) and Quinni (Chloé Hayden) – were created after the actors were cast. Darren, like Majoos, is non-binary, and Quinni, like Hayden, is autistic: the latter character marks the first time a neurodivergent role has been played by a neurodivergent actor on Australian TV.

Other characters were also shaped by the actors playing them, from their own style to the words they did and didn’t use in everyday speech. “When we came into pre-production, [the team] had our Instagrams up,” says Townsend. “They wanted our characters and selves to mesh, which was cool.”

“From the start, Hannah was like, ‘look, if there’s something that you think your character wouldn’t say or do, feel free to talk to us,” adds Bryn Chapman Parish, who plays basketballer Spider. “There was a really open communication between the writer’s room and us.”

It takes on class and the ‘Australian Dream’, too

From the first scenes, class divides are apparent in Heartbreak High. Amerie’s friends pull up at a red light in their Ford Falcon next to a convertible of private school boys, dressed up in their respectable blazer-and-tie uniforms and wide-brim hats. “Nice car, Centrelink,” they laugh.

Hartley High is a (fictional) public school in Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs, and the tension is apparent throughout the show, lingering in the background. For Watson, who plays Missy, it’s a refreshing change from the more affluent, ‘aspirational’ lives elsewhere on Australian screens.

Sherry Lee Watson
Sherry Lee Watson. Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

“The Australian Dream is very much sold to us – which means we see the really good, fun parts of society, not working-class people,” she says. “We’re watching people who can enjoy leisure and go on holidays. We’re not getting a fundamentally working-class Aussie story, unless it’s specifically about that. But this show is just set with the backdrop of working-class people – and so many people in Australia have these lives.”

And the slang is back

There may be only one “Rack off!” in the reboot, but don’t worry: the Aussie slang is still very present. From lines about being “fully gakked” to bagging on Tim Winton and calling littering “a bit shit”, Heartbreak High is unapologetically full of Aussie sayings that have even made it into the cast’s own vocabulary. Parish, Watson and Townsend have adopted the line “none of your business bong-water”, while McDonald and Weatherall are big fans of the ‘euphemism’ “tongue punching in the fart box”.

James Majoos and Will McDonald
Will McDonald and James Majoos. Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

And this new Heartbreak High knows that language makes characters come alive. To play Ca$H, for example, McDonald peppered his scenes with eshay Pig Latin – which was for him about treating the character “with some respect”.

“[Eshays] are one of Australia’s biggest youth subcultures – a lot of the time a character like Ca$H is someone you take the mickey out of in a TikTok, or there’s a news report with a bunch of people clutching their pearls about gangs,” he says. “But a lot of these kids are just kids looking for community and identity and belonging. It was about making sure that we treated Ca$h like the real person that he is.”

Heartbreak High is now streaming on Netflix

Advertisement

More TV Stories:

Advertisement