After finishing and reviewing the first season of Heartstopper (TV series), we were looking for another show to watch, and landed on Love, Victor, available on Disney+. This is a very different kind of show than Heartstopper, and I daresay I prefer it. Where Heartstopper is a well-done if formulaic series committed to low stakes, Love, Victor is basically a soap opera that had us constantly yelling at the screen.
Love, Victor is a spinoff of the movie Love, Simon (which I have seen but do not remember). Victor is a closeted gay kid at Simon’s old high school, and he writes Simon hate mail because he thinks Simon must have had it so much easier. Simon responds much more kindly than I would have, and serves as a remote mentor for the first season and a half. The show primarily focuses on Victor and his circle of friends, who are seemingly embroiled in an endless series of love triangles.
I wrote a series of reactions/complaints as we watched Love, Victor over the past two months, and I have attempted to organize them into something coherent. I won’t be going through the whole show episode by episode, but I will include incidental spoilers for all three seasons.
The liar ball and the grand gesture
To establish what kind of show this is, I want to describe a few of its most common tropes. According to TV Tropes, the idiot ball is
A moment where a normally competent character suddenly becomes incompetent – knowingly or otherwise – which fuels an episode, a plot line, or any number of smaller threads.
Love, Victor uses a variant I call the liar ball, where normally honest characters suddenly become liars, and their lies are used to fuel nearly every episode. Often at the end, the characters come clean, and the moral of the story is you really don’t have to lie like that. However, the show undercuts its own moral message, because no matter how many times a character learns their lesson, they’ll go right back to lying when it’s convenient to the plot. And sometimes they don’t even learn their lesson, the show just forgets that they ever did anything wrong in the first place.
For example, Victor’s sister agrees to set up a Facebook account for her mother. Then makes up a lie about the account getting hacked so she can impersonate her mother to chat with her ex-paramour. Okay, so the whole point is so the kids can learn about their mother’s affair. But what about the whole deal with the daughter impersonating her mother? The answer is, it was only a plot device, so it will never be mentioned again.
Another common trope throughout the show is the grand gesture. One excellent example occurs in season 2, when Victor wants to come out at school, but keeps on freezing up. This is of course made exceedingly melodramatic, and Victor’s failure leads directly to sexual harassment of his ex-girlfriend, and a schoolyard fight. The whole time I’m shouting, Victor! Ask! For! Help! Your friends and your boyfriend all know you’re gay, so if you can’t spit it out, ask someone else to say it for you. Victor comes up with another solution: stand on a chair in the hallway and announce that he’s gay to the whole school. Definitely doing it the hard way, buddy!
Throughout the show, Victor’s designated love interest is Benji. They’re not actually together for most of the show’s run period, but with even an ounce of genre awareness, you can tell they’re the showrunners’ OTP.
But I tend to have a contrary reading of the situation. See, if there’s one thing a soap opera hates in a relationship, it’s stasis. So the whenever characters are in a relationship, that relationship must be full of conflict and drama. By any realistic measure, they are bad relationships. So the way I like to read it, the central conflict is that the characters are in dysfunctional relationships, and the natural resolution is for them to break up. As the characters cycle through relationships and breakups, it’s intended as conflict and resolution–I see it the same way, but the phases of conflict and resolution are swapped.
When we fantasize about characters breaking up with one another as a resolution to their arcs, my friend Coyote dubbed that “postshipping”, so that’s what I’m calling it.
Love, Victor definitely has some great breakups. The ones I remember most are actually from Victor’s straight friend Felix. For example, his second breakup with Lake occurs because Lake tried to help Felix’s mother (who has mental health problems), and accidentally got her involuntarily committed. Attempting to win his forgiveness, Lake takes Felix out to an aquarium. There’s a callback to an earlier (ridiculous) analogy that Felix made about an angler fish who only wants their partner to be happy. Felix says (paraphrased), “I don’t want to be that fish, because I don’t want to only care about making you happy, I want me to be happy too. And when I look at you, all I feel is sad.” Yes! Prioritize your happiness, Felix! Don’t be the angler fish!
Victor & Benji
Why do I think Victor and Benji’s relationship is bad? Three things: sexual assault, cheating, and arguing.
The sexual assault I’m referring to is a surprise kiss, something that occurs multiple times throughout the show. These high school students really need some of those “May I kiss you?” PSA posters about consent–actually, the showrunners probably need some too. At this point in the show, Victor is closeted to everyone, and he surprise-kisses Benji while they are in a hotel room for a work-related trip. Wow, what a bad idea! If I were Benji I’d say, that wasn’t okay, but clearly you’re going through something, let me recommend a hotline for questioning teens. Benji doesn’t do anything like that, instead he puts distance between Victor and him, because he’s worried that it will hurt his already fragile relationship with his current boyfriend. My reading is that Benji blames himself even though he was the victim, and he thinks his boyfriend will also blame the victim. This is why even seemingly benign instances of sexual assault are bad!
The cheating occurs when Victor finally gets together with Benji–before breaking up with his current girlfriend. This is of course done in the most dramatic way possible, with his girlfriend walking in to them kissing each other on the night before Victor intended to tell her. Teens gonna make some bad decisions!
The whole period where Victor is pining after Benji, Benji is kind of a blank slate of character. But when they get together, we finally learn a few things about him. One, he once nearly died from drunk driving and is currently sober. Two, he has some major incompatibilities with Victor, leading to arguments and Benji falling off the wagon multiple times. During their second breakup, Benji gives a speech about how Victor was his trigger and they can’t see each other any more. Really hard to disagree with that one, especially as Benji continues to be triggered whenever he sees Victor speaking to another boy. I said that I see breaking up as a resolution to the story, but in this case I think they need to go further and truly get over one another. Then they could be platonic friends, and use the power of friendship to support Benji’s continued sobriety.
Teen sex and safe sex
One of the weird things about Love, Victor is its treatment of teen sex. On the one hand the characters are 16-year-olds, and on the other hand they’re played by twenty-something actors who are written to play up the show’s sex appeal. In season 2, Victor’s mother walks into Victor & Benji having sex, and it becomes a whole thing about how she’s just mad because she’s homophobic. On the other hand, in season 3, Victor’s mother finds birth control pills in her daughter’s room, and it becomes a whole thing about how they don’t sufficiently trust their daughter when says she’s not having sex. I’m getting mixed messages, are the parents right or wrong to be upset at their kids having sex?
At one point, Victor gets into a hookup relationship with a boy named Nick. I probably shouldn’t pretend I know how hookups work among teens, but I feel like this is more commenting on hookups as practiced by adults. It ends because Victor thinks he got an STD (he didn’t), and at the clinic he wishes he had a more steady relationship with Nick so Nick could be there with him.
For, uh, historical reasons, STDs are kind of a sore spot for gay men, and using it as a plot point to end a hookup relationship is particularly a can of worms. I guess my husband and I were hoping Love, Victor would show a bit more attentiveness to the subject of STDs, even though it would be uncharacteristic of the show to do that. I wanted to see Victor model some mature behavior by immediately informing Nick that the suspected he had an STD, and my husband was hoping the doctor would explain PrEP on-screen. But no, instead we got some uncomfortable jokes between Victor and the doctor. You know, the sort of jokes that people imagine, that makes them afraid to get checked for STDs…
In season 1, there’s an episode where Victor doesn’t want to have sex with his girlfriend. And obviously this is the whole trope where he’s not really attracted to her therefore he’s gay. My issue is that in order for this to work, the story needs to turn up the compulsory sexuality to 11, so that the main character’s reluctance, despite being brief enough to fit within one episode, stands out as unusual enough to serve as a catalyst for personal revelation. This is particularly egregious when the compulsory sexuality is voiced by wise mentor Simon. It comes across as wise mentor telling 16-y.o. boy that he can’t be bi unless he has sex this instant. Simon and Victor haven’t even met yet!
There’s an episode in season 2 titled “Sex Cabin”, where all these kids go to a cabin with the express purpose of finding space for sex. Compulsory sexuality is turned up to 11 again, so that sex is a sufficiently urgent issue to fuel conflict. But some of the characters are visibly nervous or reluctant about this, and their partners insufficiently cognizant or respectful of that. I feel like the show is trying to make us root for them having sex, but they’re 16 so it would be weird for me to do that. Mostly I think they’re in desperate need of sex education, particularly around consent. Going to a secluded location where they can collectively pressure each other into sex, and can’t back out, that’s not consent culture.
Anyway, Victor spends the whole episode trying to get phone reception so he can ask Simon for sex tips. Simon says that’s a private thing to navigate on his own. What a cop-out! At least send Victor a link to Scarleteen, come on! Yeah so I think Simon isn’t a good mentor.
Race and homophobia
At some point in season 2, the writers realize they can’t do gay love triangles until there are at least three gay characters in the main cast, so they introduce Rahim, a closeted boy with a Muslim family. At multiple points it’s emphasized how hard Rahim has it because he’s Iranian and his family is Muslim. Rahim is compared to Victor, who is Colombian/Puerto Rican and has a Catholic family. They’re both contrasted with Benji who is white and therefore has liberal and accepting parents.
I get that they’re trying to highlight hardships that are particular to the POC experience, but uh, it comes across as “They’re POC so obviously their families are homophobic”. I’m willing to give some leeway here since this is a common challenge in QPOC portrayals, and more emotionally mature stories still have difficulty finding a balance. The main thing I would fix, is the assumption that white families are naturally liberal and accepting. This later gets “fixed” in season 3, when Benji has issues with his parents, but race isn’t brought up again when it happens.
During Season 2, there’s a plot arc where Victor’s mother struggles to accept Victor’s sexuality, which is represented by her reluctance to go to PFLAG meetings with Victor’s father. That’s an okay plot arc, but it gave me tangential thoughts. What are PFLAG meetings really like? The show portrays some tension between parents who have different degrees of difficulty working through their own prejudices and hangups. But is that true to life? I have no idea.
One thing that feels like it couldn’t possibly be accurate, is the poor support group etiquette. Among other things, they put newcomers on the spot to spill out their hearts. No! Bad support group!
The Bravery Award
In the last two episodes, Victor receives a “bravery” award from the school, a brand new award they invented because they were just so inspired by Victor. It’s basically a gay award and everyone acknowledges it. This is such a viscerally terrible idea. Victor initially considers refusing, but ultimately it’s resolved in favor of the award, because ?? being gay can be hard ?? Truly baffling. The award seems patronizing and self-serving, not to mention that it obliges Victor to stand up in front of the school while drawing attention to how gay he is.
At the award ceremony, Victor gives a speech that is apparently so inspiring that all the characters are moved to tie up their respective plot threads. Victor’s own boyfriend is inspired to break up with him, so that Victor can finally be with Benji. Woop-dee doo. It definitely felt like the show was unexpectedly cancelled, so they had to bring everyone’s arcs to a swift conclusion.
So that’s Love, Victor. Fun to yell at, 9/10.