Fast Times at Hartley High

A new generation of students returns for a fresh take on ground-breaking Australian series Heartbreak High.

Something about Heartbreak High’s public school feels distinctly Australian. “It’s the look of the toilets, the look of the bubblers,” says lead actor Ayesha Madon. For co-star Chloé Hayden, it’s the flourishes of Eshay culture and the symbols that characterise local graffiti. Even a brief shot of ibis gathering in a schoolyard feels intentional. In this reimagined take on the 90s television classic, the lived-in grit takes on a stylish, heightened essence. “I think that’s going to be really cool for young Australians, to see their lives romanticised in that way,” Madon says.

Madon and Hayden, alongside James Majoos, form the core trio of this new generation of Hartley High teens, bringing Heartbreak’s legacy to a young audience. “I’m gonna be fully candid,” Madon says regarding the original, “I had no idea what it was.”

But for those who followed the show at its cultural peak, there’s a sense of exhilaration surrounding its impending return on Netflix. When Majoos got the part, their older sisters “immediately started crying”.

Created by Michael Jenkins and Ben Gannon, the hugely popular original broadcast the complex lives of Australian teens internationally in a way rarely done  before – or since – with clear empathy. It provided a goldmine of young Aussie talent, launching the careers of Ada Nicodemou (Katerina) and Callan Mulvey (Drazic), as well as Alex Dimitriades, star of the 1993 movie The Heartbreak Kid, from which Heartbreak High is a spin-off.

For producer Carly Heaton, the reimagining feels like fate. “We were all obsessed with the show as teenagers,” Heaton says. “[It looked] like us and all of our friends. It was brash, it was loud, it was noisy.

“We liked bringing up all this new talent,” she adds, noting the absence of a true “vehicle” for today’s young creatives. Enter Hannah Caroll Chapman, who cut her teeth on shows like The Heights and Home and Away. As creator and head writer, Chapman was keen to emulate the boldness and local specificity of its predecessor. Yet the intention, they both stress, was to offer today’s youth the same self-recognition they’d both found in the original.

This required countless conversations with as many young people as possible, ensuring the writing felt “fresh and truthful”. It was the cast, for instance, who advised Chapman on the apt slang term for condom (“dommy” not “franger”). A series of workshops were set up with teens from different areas, allowing Chapman to glean insights into the unabashedly Australian method of “undercutting moments of huge pathos” with dark humour. Chapman also chatted with her teenaged sister, who shared details of an “Incest Map” that charted the various hook-ups between students at her high school, illustrating the angsty and close-knit nature of teen relationships. “I was like, ‘Send it to me right now!’” she laughs.

The Incest Map discovery shaped the series. Heartbreak’s pilot introduces us to cool girl Amerie (Madon) and her best friend Harper (Asher Yasbincek), whose own glorious version of the map, hidden in an abandoned stairwell, is discovered by the school. Harper lets Amerie take the fall, leaving the latter to descend the social ladder into the arms of fellow outcasts Quinni (Hayden) and Darren (Majoos). The map provided a rich storytelling landscape for Chapman: “Yes, it was filthy, but they were showing who they had connected to and who they’d had these moments with. A story that I really wanted to tell was what happens when those connections break.”

Yet from the ashes of one friendship group grows another. Much like their characters, Madon, Hayden and Majoos are clearly enamoured with one another, effusively praising their castmates. The three were pre-cast, meaning their roles hadn’t been fully fleshed out when they signed on. This let the writers collaborate with the performers, particularly regarding neurodivergent character Quinni.

Hayden is a rare instance of an actor who is on the autism spectrum portraying a character on the autism spectrum – the first in Australia to co-lead a series. In development, the writers regularly discussed Quinni’s arc with Hayden: “We were like, okay, we need her to actually have a diagnosis and to talk about it and to have it be part of who she is,” the actor recalls. “I would just be sitting in my bedroom, reading these scripts…sobbing my heart out. I can’t even tell you how much that [representation] would have helped me.”

“We’ve got these three minorities leading an Australian show, which is something that I’ve never seen before,” Majoos says. Then, with some nerves about the show’s release: “It’s so confronting seeing yourself when you’ve never really seen yourself in the media before.”

Though the 90s Heartbreak High was praised for its exploration of multiculturalism and migrant stories, the reimagining ensured its writers’ room reflected the diversity on screen, which for the first time includes First Nations characters. Almost 30 years since the original’s debut, part of representing contemporary Australia meant acknowledging its myriad intersections.

“What does Australia look like now?” Heaton asks. “What’s the make-up of our country? What are the ideas that have evolved since then?”

The hope is that the series will, once again, bring Australia to the world.

“We’re slightly chuffed that it might have to have subtitles in the US,” Heaton jokes.


By Tiia Kelly @tiiakel
Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor living in Naarm/Melbourne.

Published in Ed#668