In the opening scene of Love, Victor, the show’s eponymous protagonist writes an angry Instagram DM to Simon Spier, the protagonist of Greg Berlanti’s 2018 film Love, Simon. Having moved to Atlanta and unsure of his place in the world, Victor arrives at Creekwood High hearing stories of an epic romance between Simon and his online pen pal Blue, a.k.a. his classmate Bram. After a first day of casual homophobia and struggles with his family, Victor writes to his predecessor to make sure he understands how privileged he was, insisting “my story is nothing like yours.”
Penned by the film’s screenwriters, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, the first episode of Love, Victor is an implicit acknowledgment of critiques that Love, Simon faced when it debuted in theaters. The “chaste” film downplays how Simon benefitted from his whiteness and class, fully supported by his community and his liberal family whose worst quality is his father’s light-hearted gay jokes, which he immediately feels guilty over when Simon comes out. The message of Love, Simon’s romantic ending is that the world of the film is ready to accept Simon and Bram’s relationship, and other relationships like it, but that world is a fantasy. Simon’s path is not easy, because coming out is always complicated, but as a working-class Latinx teenager moving to Georgia from Texas with a religious family, Victor has a far less rosy view of Simon’s world—at least to begin with.
Love, Simon was a groundbreaking moment for LGBTQ+ representation in cinema, though only contextually: Its storyline may have broken no barriers, but the fact that it was a major theatrical studio release intended for audiences beyond the LGBTQ+ community was novel. Early on, Love, Victor was positioned similarly, designed to serve as one of the first original series for Disney+, and the first Disney-branded series to explicitly focus its attention on LGBTQ+ issues after toeing the waters with the coming-out storyline on Disney Channel’s Andi Mack.
Victor’s assertion about Simon’s privilege and the show leaning into the intersections between queerness, race, and class might have signaled a new frontier for Disney programming, except for one problem: It didn’t debut on Disney+. It debuted on Hulu, where it has no claim to breaking new ground; our own Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya argues the show “brims with tenderness,” but overall “holds a lot back, playing it largely safe when it comes to its depictions of queerness and coming out.” And while some of this reaction can be attributed to the unplanned change in context, the truth is that Love, Victor is a half-measure even by Disney standards, a form of queer storytelling that television—no matter who it’s aimed at—should have moved past a decade ago.
The fantasy of Love, Simon was not a purely Hollywood creation: Becky Albertalli’s novel, on which the film was based, is similarly optimistic, which is likely why Fox (now owned by Disney) moved to adapt it in the first place. Simon’s struggles are individual, not institutional: He’s forced out of the closet by a blackmailing classmate, and faces the ridicule of two bullies alongside a fellow gay classmate, but the film makes the case that the biggest thing standing in the way of his coming out is his anxiety over destroying his comfortable status quo, which proves unfounded. The fact that his life is only enriched by this experience is highly romanticized at a time when many teens face significant discrimination. But it also represents the kind of uplifting and hopeful message the film’s genre often relies on, and it’s not meaningless to see that in a mainstream theatrical release. Given its relationship to the film, Love, Victor is applying the same principles to its mashup of teen rom-com and family drama.
But that same kind of representation is not as meaningful in the context of LGBTQ+ visibility on television. Apple’s recent docuseries Visible offers a detailed history of such representations, acknowledging that it was on television where such crucial boundaries were broken. Even if we limit ourselves to depictions of queer young men, the docuseries charts a path from Wilson Cruz’s Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life to a wide range of modern representations of queerness—from significant supporting storylines on cable (Ian and Mickey on Shameless, Jude on The Fosters) and broadcast (Kurt et al. on Glee, Kenny on The Real O’Neals) series. Collectively, these more recent examples represent just a small part of what The Advocate identified as a “Gay Teen TV Revolution” in 2016. If we expand beyond an American context, Norway’s Skam—and many of its local-language adaptations—explores modern coming-out narratives in detail, while Netflix’s Élite, out of Spain, delves into the fluidity of contemporary sexuality with its male characters across its three seasons. While an average moviegoer could go years without seeing meaningful representation of queerness in theaters, an average television viewer is far more likely to see it, and across a wide spectrum of genres, channels, and series.
When the decision was made in February to move Love, Victor—which had already been filmed—to Hulu, it entered into a wider conversation, creating a higher burden of representation. Trade reports initially suggested it was possible the show had been moved because it had tried to meet this burden, explaining that Disney balked due to “alcohol use, marital issues (among the parents) and sexual exploration.” However, this—not surprisingly—said more about Disney’s conservatism than Love, Victor’s ambitions, as the tentative and careful coming-out story in the series still plays as though its imagined audience has not been exposed to the wide range of queer representation on television in the past decade.
While it’s unclear how Disney execs are defining “sexual exploration,” the series’ biggest distinction from the film is that it is actually an exploration: Victor is unsure of his sexuality when he arrives at Creekwood, stumbling over his words with the openly gay Benji but also casually chatting up the popular but grounded Mia. The series charts him wrestling with his feelings for Benji but embracing his feelings for Mia as he tries to meet his parents’ and society’s expectations and starts a relationship with her; this is actually returning to Albertalli’s book, where Simon’s backstory involves old girlfriends. While Victor eventually learns—through the help of those DMs from Simon—to distinguish between his affection for Mia and his connection with Benji (despite him having a boyfriend), most of the season sees Victor working through how to articulate his orientation, at one point googling bisexuality and pansexuality.
However, on multiple levels, the show abandons the specificity of this struggle in favor of a more generic coming-of-age narrative. While the first episode sees Victor feeling ostracized based on his race, class, and sexuality, the circumstances of the story erase these concerns: Once he starts dating Mia, joins the basketball team, and gets a part-time job at the coffee shop with Benji to cover athletics fees, these social divisions essentially disappear, a decision that robs the subsequent story of real stakes. And while Victor’s struggle to fully embrace his sexuality is the root of his issues committing to his relationship with Mia, particularly when she tries to accelerate the relationship physically, the DMs that Victor exchanges with Simon at times risk—like the voice-over in the film—feeling generic, downplaying the distinct anxieties tied to sexual orientation in favor of a more “universal” anxiety over struggling to see “a world beyond high school.”
This is exacerbated by the choice to make Victor deeply uneducated about gay culture. Even if we account for a religious—but not particularly strict—upbringing, the fact is that Victor has access to the internet, and all of the pop culture representations of queerness that exist in the world today. But when he arrives in New York to visit Simon and Bram after hitting rock bottom after kissing Benji on a work trip, he seems to have been living under a rock. He stumbles over the idea of they/them pronouns, seems puzzled by the idea of drag, and is shocked to learn that all the jocks in Bram’s gay basketball league are gay. The purpose of this is clear: When imagined as a show for Disney+, the show positioned itself as pedagogical, teaching younger teens and especially their parents about gay culture from a place of potential ignorance. But moved to Hulu, Victor’s educational visit to New York—despite being the first episode that feels grounded in an exploration of queerness—feels woefully basic, as though Victor is coming of age 20 years earlier.
As always, coming-out stories are singular, and there is no question that there are teens like Victor who are afraid to learn more about gay culture. But it doesn’t feel like Victor is repressed by his environment or upbringing so much as the writers’ self-censorship. Attempting to create a PG version of a coming-out story means Victor isn’t allowed to engage in meaningful exploration of sexuality, even in his inner monologue. I watched the first season waiting for something that could be perceived as even borderline objectionable for a family audience, but all I found was a story that starts by pushing against the fantasy of Love, Simon but never commits to digging beyond the film’s optimistic worldview.
There’s comfort in that world, where even Victor’s comparably “difficult” parents are supportive of gay people if not wild about the idea of having a gay son, but it means Love, Victor has nothing to add to existing television conversations around any of the topics it introduces up-front. This is where, even if the show were on Disney+, the show’s lack of commitment is a fundamental failure. The distinctions of Victor’s family being Latinx that were emphasized early on, for example, are a missed opportunity by the season’s later episodes. The arrival of his religious grandparents plays out without any meaningful consideration of how race and religion intersect with their homophobia. When Victor is in New York, he discovers Simon has been consulting his roommates on his messages, which Simon defends based on needing perspective on how Victor’s story is indeed different from his own; however, he noticeably omits race from the equation. The show also has no interest in exploring the intersection of race and class with regards to Mia, who is Black, reverting to colorblind storytelling in her struggles with her father and his new girlfriend.
And as for queerness itself, outside of a brief storyline for Benji and his boyfriend to help clear the way for Victor and Benji to come together at season’s end, the non-Victor parts of Love, Victor are exclusively heteronormative. The show is unwilling to take the ideas that emerge from Victor’s exploration—like bisexuality and pansexuality—and dig into them with any meaning in his or other storylines. While the show’s trailer teased the idea that Victor might identify as bisexual, that thread is never actually resolved in the series itself: Victor explores his relationship with Mia until he determines that his feelings for Benji are different, but the show never circles back to reaffirm the validity of bisexuality, or clearly indicate what changed and when. It’s one of a number of conversations the show starts but never finishes, and while starting dialogues might have meant something on Disney+, it struggles when placed against other programming on Hulu—like Freeform’s lineup, for example—that follows through more consistently.
What’s unclear is whether this would have been the case if the showrunners had known the series was going to be on Hulu from the beginning. In an episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s TV Top 5 podcast, Aptaker and Berger acknowledge that there was tension with Disney as the show moved into production, and they were aware that a move to Hulu was possible as they worked their way into Victor’s story. But I am reticent to say that this is an “excuse” for how the show approaches its themes: Given its component parts, and what television as a whole is saying on those topics, they had a responsibility to push further, regardless of where the show was going to air.
Aptaker and Berger and their writing staff have an opportunity to rethink their approach in the second season, which has not been formally ordered, but is being written for Hulu specifically. The season ends with Victor coming out to his parents immediately after they reveal their intention to separate, and after he loses his opportunity to break things off with Mia on his own terms when she sees him beginning his relationship with Benji outside the homecoming dance. It’s a powder keg of a situation, and with Victor embarking on his first same-sex relationship in earnest, and no longer passing as straight at home or at school, the series is well-positioned to deconstruct Love, Simon’s rose-colored world and develop queer narratives that are more specific, less chaste, and willing to confront the culture of discrimination built into Victor’s story more directly. The show can do this while still highlighting the found-family community of LGBTQ+ individuals that Victor develops in New York, and could also find in Atlanta if he—but more importantly, the writers room—is willing to look for them.
But doing so would require them to abandon the naive worldview of Love, Simon, and it’s hard to ignore the symbolism of Simon passing along the jean jacket he wore in the movie to Victor. Aptaker and Berger say that Hulu is embracing their plan to “grow with the audience” in terms of the stories it tells, specifically as it relates to “sexual exploration,” and that’s great, but Love, Victor is not just hamstrung by a lack of sex scenes or realistic high school language or risqué jokes. I take the writers at their word that there were parts of Victor’s experience they would have done differently if they had known they would have been sitting alongside shows like Looking For Alaska and Pen15, instead of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. But watching the season made me wonder if the notion that queer narratives need to be soft-shoed for an imagined ignorant (straight) audience to relate to them is so pervasive that Love, Victor will never leave the warm embrace of the film’s fantasy behind in the way it needs to in order to advance these and other conversations forward.