Regrets, I have few. In this case I regret that I didn’t start watching the Australian show Heartbreak High (2022- ) sooner. This inclusive, warm, funny, relatable series about a group of teens dealing with sex, relationships, school, parents, parties, and all the shit that society throws at them is a joy to immerse yourself in. Though, forewarned is forearmed: Unless you’re intimately familiar with Australian slang, have a tab open and ready to search more than a few terms.
Upon returning from their holiday break, Hartley High is going to be rocked by the revelation of a so-called “Incest Map”—a visual representation of the sexual exploits of many students. It even has a very, very detailed key. The map, which was never expected to go public, is the creation of Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek), two best friends who are more careful observers than active participants of the many sexcapades. (To be clear, it’s called the “Incest Map” because of the insular nature of the school’s social scene, which leads to overlapping partners, not because of any actual incest. This isn’t some HBO show about dragons!) When Amerie gets nailed by the Headmistress (Rachel House) for the map, she chooses not to name Harper as her accomplice, which she thinks will save her punishment. However, it turns out that Harper, who has been MIA since they went to a music festival a bit ago, could care less about anything Amerie does. Or so she says. She has shaved off her long blonde hair and completely cut off Amerie, and Amerie understands the reason behind neither. (It will take most of the season for the series to reveal the reason behind Harper’s anger, though many of you may understand at least part of it long before then.)
Between the map and Harper, Amerie loses all her friends and becomes a social pariah in a matter of hours. It’s a lot. After spending some time sobbing, Amerie does what many a desperate teenager in her position might do: she attempts to cut her own bangs. This disastrous choice ultimately leads to a fortuitous meeting with Darren (James Majoos) and Quinni (Chloe Hayden), who are not part of Amerie’s former social circle. Well, the terrible bangs and Quinni’s deep understanding of what it feels like to be a total social outcast lead to the fortuitous meeting. Quinni is a very good egg.
All of the kids who appeared on the map—or, better said, all of the kids who appeared on the map and are main characters in this show—are forced to take a Sexual Literacy Tutorial class, whose initials, Darren is quick to point out, spell SLUTS, so you know this class will be a place of off-color humor. In addition to Amerie, the students include Harper, Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran), and Missy (Sherry-Lee Watson), who are Amerie’s former close friends. Dusty (Josh Heuston), the school heartthrob, had quite the cluster of girls around his name on the map, but there may be more to him than just his good bone structure and perfectly floppy hair. Ant (Brodie Townsend) is very upset that his mother found out he got a wristy from Darren, which means he has to go to church several more times a week. Malakai (Thomas Weatherall) is brand new to the school and, at first, it’s unclear how he ended up in the class, aside from the fact that he’s cute and maybe has a thing for Amerie. Spider (Bryn Chapman Parish), the wise-cracking, swaggering, bully that everyone hates at some point—you probably will too—is likely secretly proud that he’s in the class, but you wouldn’t know it because he’s so busy leading the kids in chants of “Map Bitch” directed at Amerie. Ca$h (Will McDonald), who’s at all the parties, but only to sell everyone else the drugs they use, is a bit of an outlier and we don’t see who he’s on the map with. And there’s Darren and Quinni, who, until Amerie’s recent fall from grace, had been strictly a friendship of two. Quinni ended up on the map when Spider lied about having seen her vulva, claiming that she has a “lazy kebab” (which is explained to mean large labia). Darren is there for at least the aforementioned wristy, though it’s far from their only exploit. The students, of course, don’t think they need this course at all. “What are they gonna teach us about sex that we don’t already know?” asks Spider. And in this particular case he is likely speaking everyone’s thoughts.
The adults, on the other hand, aren’t quite so united in their take on the class. The headmistress is most concerned about the school’s reputation and that they not be seen as encouraging the students to have sex. JoJo (Chika Ikogwe), the SLT teacher, contends that they’re already doing it, so why not teach them how to do it safely and with consent. This leads to some great scenes with outdated materials and incredibly awkward games being used to illustrate how STDs are passed. Still, in between the textbook from the dark ages and the dick jokes, some real learning does take place (just don’t ask anyone to admit to that).
The teens are by turns vibrant, confident, kind, self-centered, selfish, insecure, and narrow-minded. So, entirely relatable. The overarching question of what happened to Harper and whether her friendship with Amerie can be repaired drives the action forward, but there are other dramas, too, that will keep you crushing the “Next Episode” button. And, while writing is one of those things that’s deeply subjective, I’d like to cite a couple of things, in addition to everything above, in favor of this being very well-written. First, when Darren is frustrated with their parents for not accepting that they are non-binary, and specifically when their step-father claims that they/them pronouns are grammatically incorrect, Darren responds, “Change only comes by breaking the rules and I’m allowed to change myself at any moment.” This is just a very good, succinct response. Also, there is a part when Amerie has sworn off sex—and penises in particular—so, of course, temptations abound. She’s in the gym playing chess, which she assumes will be safe, but then Malakai is also in the gym playing a very sweaty game of basketball. And just to drive home the point, this is the moment that the humongous, hot pink silicone penis that someone glued to the basketball hoop chooses to come unstuck and land with a smack in the middle of Amerie’s chess board. This is excellent on all counts. If you never thought that a scene of two teens trying to send each other suggestive photos couldn’t be tenderly awkward, funny, sweet, and convey a plethora of emotions, then this series is here to show you otherwise. See also: their date that gets sidetracked by a bunch of retirees’ poker night. It’s fantastic. There is an autistic character (played by someone who is autistic) who not only portrays autism incredibly well, but also shines a light on aspects of ableism like infantilization, control, and language. It’s all so good and naturally done that I squealed internally multiple times. There is racist violence by a police officer. A student protest that leads to life-changing revelations. There is more than one case of assault and the exploration of the long-term fall out from that. All of these things are handled with the dignity, respect, and, (thankfully) often, humor that they deserve.