Remembering Heartbreak High


Danielle Binks

15 years after it ended, maybe it's time for your friends from Hartley High to make a TV comeback (ABC budget ...

15 years after it ended, maybe it's time for your friends from Hartley High to make a TV comeback (ABC budget permitting, ahem).

There’s a famous quote that goes: "There are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics". It’s also an apt summary of politics, and Tony Abbott’s latest political back-flip in particular.

Those cold, hard statistics have made the Australian media and broadcasting landscape a bleak one these last few weeks, and things are only going to get worse for our public broadcasters. SBS faces losing $53 million in funding, while the ABC will lose $254 million in funding over the next five years, and 400 people will lose their jobs. The situation is dire, no matter how you look at it.

But especially disheartening is the fact that these public broadcasters have been integral to diversifying the Australian entertainment landscape. Just this year, ABC’s Redfern Now and SBS’s Legally Brown won awards at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union Prizes for television and radio; the ABC launched Black Comedy, Australia's first indigenous sketch show since 1973; and the SBS documentary series First Contact shone a light on the deep divide between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the nation. The thought of losing any headway that the ABC and SBS have made is beyond saddening and maddening. 

With that in mind, I think it’s time we looked back at one of the television shows that set the standard for youth and diversity programming in this country - Heartbreak High. The series was based on the lives of a group of students who attended the fictional Hartley High School in Sydney.


November 29 will mark 15 years since the end of this beloved television program, the show that ran for seven seasons from 1994 to 1999 – first on Network Ten, then on the ABC – and tackled everything from teen pregnancy and racism, to drugs, religion and homelessness. Heartbreak High helped launch the careers of Callan Mulvey and Ada Nicodemou, and featured guest-appearances by actors such as Simon Baker and Rose Byrne.

According to Australian Screen curator, Tammy Burnstock, Heartbreak High was based on a stage play written by Robert Barrett, first published in 1988, which was adapted into the successful film The Heartbreak Kid (1993), starring Alex Dimitriades and Claudia Karvan. The 1993 film set out to be diverse and capture the ‘melting-pot’ Australia that, at the time, wasn’t being portrayed in shows like Neighbours or Home and Away. According to producer Ben Gannon (who would go on to become executive producer of Heartbreak High): "The Heartbreak Kid was presenting a world that we didn’t think was widely known outside of Australia; a multi-racial, urban, more ‘gritty’ high school. Up until Heartbreak, we didn’t feel that had ever been properly represented on film or television."

This need for multiculturalism translated into the Hartley High inner city school setting; Heartbreak High not only offered seven seasons of diverse casting, but also explored racial tensions within the school setting. The pilot episode centered on character Rivers (Scott Major) repeatedly goading new student Jack Tran (Tai Nguyen), resulting in an after-school brawl.

The show was also a great stage upon which to discuss gender politics, misogyny and especially ‘everyday sexism’ - one storyline was based around Anita (Lara Cox) being accused of being 'a slut' when it was revealed that she was on the pill. Another story saw a female student being harassed during lunchtime soccer games, and told to “go play netball.”

Even though the show has been off-air for 15 years now, it has become somewhat of a cult classic, another production from the ABC's ‘golden age’ of '90s youth programming that also gifted us the likes of The Genie From Down Under, Escape From Jupiter, Ship To Shore, and Round The Twist.

Heartbreak High is celebrated on Tumblr, both by nostalgic fans and much younger generations who have discovered the series via the DVDs and YouTube (and not just Aussie fans either – since the show was broadcast in some 30 countries, German and Italian subtitled episodes can also be viewed on YouTube), all invested in the Drazic and Anita romance, despite at times being 15 years late to the drama.

The show's also been celebrated by the Buzzfeed community - see: 'How To Dress Like You Went To Heartbreak High' and 'A Tribute To Aussie Slang: Every “Rack Off” In Heartbreak High' - and, after it was announced that Twin Peaks would be resurrected in 2016, people were quick to list Heartbreak High amongst those TV shows they’d also like to see make a comeback. Such ideas are not exactly far-fetched (even if it is just '90s nostalgia talking).

A successful Heartbreak High comeback is possible, as illustrated by the Canadian teen juggernaut Degrassi: The Next Generation, which shares the same basic plot premise: an ensemble cast of students at a local public school, who face various challenges throughout the year. Degrassi's reboot came in 2001 - based on the series The Kids of Degrassi Street and Degrassi Junior High that aired from 1979-1989 - and is still going strong, currently in its 14th season and having launched the careers of Nina Dobrev and Drake.

Just as Degrassi: The Next Generation did, a Heartbreak High reboot would only need the Hartley High school setting to work. A melting-pot inner city Sydney school remains the perfect place for gritty youth narratives, providing a space to explore everything from sexual identity to mental health and youth disability, just as the original show did and like contemporary ABC shows are being praised for doing now.

It would also be in keeping with the ABC’s ethos to “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”. Such a setting demands no whitewashing, and could give 'ethnic' actors the chance to portray a truer Australian culture. Marea Jablonski of actors' agency BGM said in 2012 that: "Ethnic actors tend to play stereotypical, caricatured roles; the wog criminal, for example. It hasn't moved in many years."

There’s also a case to be made for a new Heartbreak High for the same reasons that the original show was created in the first place – to reflect on contemporary Australian culture. The series ended in 1999, and since then we've become a country shaped by the 2001 Children Overboard affair, 9/11, the Pacific Solution, and the 2005 Cronulla riots. Heartbreak High would provide opportunities not only to showcase a truly multicultural Australian cast, but to explore important storylines – like the extent of racism in Australian schools – in a contemporary teen drama.

The original Heartbreak High was such a benchmark for youth and diversity programming in Australia, and its original seven seasons are still fondly remembered some 15 years after its cancellation. But Hartley High is a setting that still has such potential, and may be worth revisiting – one day, and budget permitting.

Danielle Binks is a regular columnist for Kill Your Darlings literary journal, and a book reviewer on Alpha Reader. You can tweet her at @danielle_binks