While the central protagonist of Disney Plus series Love, Victor is grappling with some tough questions about his identity, the show itself knows exactly what it is. That’s because the basic blueprint for a high school drama was laid out in the ’90s and hasn’t changed all that much in the decades that have followed. There can be no denying that Love, Victor packs a veritable bingo card of teen clichés, but in this particular instance, that actually works in its favour.
The series kicks off as Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) moves from Texas to Georgia with his family, enrolling at a new school and tackling all the anxiety-inducing pitfalls that come with such a mammoth change. The added wrinkle is that he is also experiencing some confusion about his sexuality and has no one to talk to about these complicated feelings. Having an LGBT+ character as the lead in a show like this is a rare thing indeed, but the novelty is balanced out by a high school setting that will be instantly familiar whether you were raised in the States yourself or just watched a lot of Buffy growing up.
The unselfconscious lack of realism hits you in the face the moment young Victor is introduced to Creekwood High’s vice principal Ms Albright (Natasha Rothwell), who wastes no time regaling him with the whimsical story of a former pupil’s love life. Sure, it serves the purpose of recapping the events of 2018 romcom Love, Simon – to which this series is a sequel of sorts – but it also continues a trope in young adult shows that faculty members tend to be a little too invested in the social exploits of their students.
From that point on, the hits keep coming. As is standard for an American high school drama, most of the teenage characters are portrayed by actors in their early twenties, all of whom look like they could waltz into a job as a Calvin Klein model at any moment. Each of your favourite archetypes are present and correct, with personalities never straying far from benevolent campus celebrity, misunderstood bully or quirky misfit. Victor’s neighbour and closest friend Felix (Anthony Turpel) is the epitome of the latter category, filling the position of “dorky sidekick” with textbook efficiency.
Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve always loved seeing student media represented in teen drama, whether it takes the form of a slickly produced school radio station (Britannia High), respectable broadsheet (Smallville) or, in the case of Love, Victor, a TMZ-style gossip news website. As a schoolboy with aspirations of cracking into journalism, these shows gave me some laughably unrealistic expectations about what opportunities I would have when I reached college. (After some persuasion, my sixth form did eventually allow me to launch a school newspaper, which equated to a few sheets of A4 “published” in the computer room using my own personal printing credit.)
Just as the institutions depicted in high school dramas are unimaginably well-resourced, the social lives of their pupils are usually more active than any teenager could reasonably hope to achieve (even pre-COVID). There’s the obligatory house party held in a beautiful home that the adults have inexplicably abandoned as well as the café/bar/other social venue (delete as appropriate) that every pupil swings by at some point in their day. It’s here that many of the tense stand-offs and sweeping romantic gestures take place. Don’t you remember those from your school years? Oh right, we were stuck with boring reality.
And that is, of course, the reason why this cookie-cutter format has been so enduring for the last 30 years or so – precisely because it couldn’t be further from the truth. Who wants to watch a soul-crushingly realistic teen drama where the school paper is closed due to budget cuts, the pupils are cursed with acne and body odour, and the big shocker of the episode is when a character gets detention for forgetting about the maths homework? Not me, thanks.
We watch these shows because they present what we wish our school years could have been like: less crying in toilets and hiding farts in class and more exciting adventures and heartfelt relationships. If only I could have enrolled at Creekwood, Moordale or Smallville High. Heck, I’d even have said yes to Sunnydale, despite the substantial risk of being lunch for some terrifying creature from the Hellmouth.
That isn’t to say these clichés have never grown tiresome; this genre has seen some incredibly misguided clunkers in the last decade alone. But when done well, there’s something quite charming about high school dramas that resonates well into adulthood. For Love, Victor, that’s particularly true. Though its characters and setting are very familiar, seeing an LGBT+ person navigate this world as the main focus is an unmistakably fresh twist. And by virtue of it leaning into cliché so heavily, the show provides the valuable service of making its LGBT+ viewership feel less like “others” and, at last, fully included in the fantasy high school experience.