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Love, Victor review: more gay teen angst in solid Love, Simon spin-off

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16/06/2020 Benjamin Lee
a man wearing a purple shirt: Photograph: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu

While its many critics dismissed 2018’s glossy coming-out teen movie Love, Simon as too milquetoast and too guarded with its queerness, it was the film’s shameless desire to be part of the mainstream that made it a quiet milestone. The story of a closeted high schooler figuring out his sexuality had been told on the outskirts for years in smaller films, but positioning it at the centre of a wide-releasing studio comedy was unprecedented, and its modest success was a sign yet again that representation is not only important but profitable.

While there’s not exactly been a rush to make more gay-fronted films of its size since (Billy Eichner’s Judd Apatow-produced Universal romcom is set to be the next), its impact can be felt on the smaller screen as LGBT characters have continued to further populate teen shows, from supporting characters in Riverdale to, most notably, Euphoria which dared to allow a queer character to lead.

Related: I May Destroy You review – could this be the best drama of the year?

The arrival of spin-off series Love, Victor then feels both inevitable and in many ways, harder to celebrate. What made Love, Simon feel momentous was its scale, both aesthetically and emotionally, a slick, swelling rush of crowd-pleasing big-screen romance treated with the same gravity and pomp as the film’s many, many straight peers, but in a longer, cheaper and more mundane format, this feels like less of a bold statement and more of a half-hearted rehash. Not that every queer story needs to be grand, but the makers of Love, Victor could have benefited from setting their sights a little bit higher with the show failing to scale the giddy heights of its predecessor, comfortably coasting far closer to the middle of the road instead.

One of the critiques of Love, Simon was a perceived low-stakes focus on the coming out narrative of a white, privileged teen from a liberal family with the argument from some being that the film gave us too untroubled and simplistic a journey. I’d argue that reminding straight audiences that accepting one’s sexuality can be alienating and difficult regardless of socio-economic status remains vital, though, and while Simon’s struggle might have been smoother than it can be for some, it’s a struggle that exists regardless. But as Love, Victor begins, it’s pleasing to see the creators Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger armed with an awareness of such complaints, eager to at least initially, show us the flipside. Our new narrator, 16-year-old Victor (20-year-old Michael Cimino), is angry with Simon, now a legend at Creekwood High, for making it all appear so seamless. His family is the religious, blue-collar equivalent of Simon’s, new to the area after a cross-country move and, unsure of whether he’s gay or bisexual, Victor decides to reach out to Simon, rather angrily on Instagram, after a disastrous first day at school.

a man wearing glasses and looking at the camera: Michael Cimino in Love, Victor – easily digestible and solidly entertaining, yet somehow lacking. © Photograph: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu Michael Cimino in Love, Victor – easily digestible and solidly entertaining, yet somehow lacking.

It’s a far-fetched device that’s carried through the season, an almost constant stream of messages between the pair that’s much less involving and much less believable than the mysterious email flirtation that powered the movie. Simon has moved to New York and acts as a sort of mentor to Victor, helping to guide him as he discovers who he is and who he’s attracted to. It’s less concrete this time round with Victor trying to date a girl Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson) while developing a crush on a gay guy, Benji (George Sear), he works with, and how this messy unsureness plays out is one of the show’s strengths, Aptaker and Berger refusing to make it as simple as Victor simply wanting a beard to throw others off the scent.

But while the show does briefly dabble with knottier issues of performative gender roles and inherited bigotry, it’s a mostly easy ride, a slightly gay version of a CW show but arguably, given how horny that network has become, way more sexless. It was initially made for Disney Plus but moved to Hulu given its content which wasn’t deemed family-friendly but given how safely it’s all played, it’s a switch that now seems at best questionable and at worst offensive.

a couple of people that are standing in the kitchen: Michael Cimino and George Sear. Photograph: Ali Goldstein/Hulu © Provided by The Guardian Michael Cimino and George Sear. Photograph: Ali Goldstein/Hulu

The initial promise that this would somehow add a bit of grit to the Love, Simon template fades fast with Victor’s strictly religious parents softening within minutes and financial concerns disappearing with a similar speed. Making Victor a twinky, basketball-playing teen who finds friends instantly sustains the fantasy world of the movie but oddly, the homophobic taunts that Simon and his gay classmate endured have been entirely excised. Benji, Victor’s openly gay object of affection, appears to glide through school and the community at large without resistance from those around him, a utopian ideal that’s sweet but unlikely. It didn’t need to overly focus on the hardship but a refusal to deal with it in much detail over 10 episodes (bar one easily settled scene with Victor’s grandfather turning his nose up at Benji and his boyfriend) feels like cowardice.

It’s one of many decisions that makes Love, Victor easily digestible and solidly entertaining yet lacking. The expanded runtime and, I hate to say but, expanded “Love, universe” allowed the makers to do much more with the coming out narrative yet what they’ve come up with is somehow far less. Conflicts have been downsized, antagonists have been removed (the “bully” jock is minimal bark, zero bite) and the romance has been reduced (there’s no heart-grabbing ferris wheel moment here). The mere existence of a gay-led teen show on a major streaming platform still feels like an encouraging move in the right direction, but this is a baby step at best.

  • Love, Victor launches on Hulu on 18 June with a UK date to follow


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