When “Love, Simon,” Greg Berlanti’s rom-com about a closeted kid in Atlanta, debuted in 2018, it did so as the first-ever gay teen film from a major studio. As such, it had roughly 150 years of straight cinema (and centuries of LGBT existence) to measure up to, and many queer viewers found it lacking. For some, the titular Simon (Nick Robinson) felt like too mainstream a representation of gay life: too white, too middle-class, too mild-mannered. Sagaciously, the protagonist of “Love, Victor,” Hulu’s TV spin-off of the film, has the same beef.
“Screw you,” he says in the pilot’s opening monologue, a narrated series of DMs sent to Simon on Instagram. “Screw you for having the world’s most perfect, accepting parents, the world’s most supportive friends. Because for some of us, it’s not that easy.”
Co-run by the film’s screenwriters, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, “Love, Victor” centers on Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino), a Latino sophomore at Simon’s old high school who reaches out to Simon for advice on social media. Victor, whose religious family is openly prejudiced against gay people, is determined not to rock the boat despite his developing attraction to men. But when he unwittingly starts dating popular girl Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson) while mooning over his coworker, Benji (George Sear), Victor is forced to figure out what he really wants. The journey to that discovery is, sure, a bit middling, ensconced in ABC Family-esque humor and PG-rated discussions of sexuality (save for one very cheeky fantasy sequence involving milk). But the narrative at the heart of “Love, Victor” is overall charming, nuanced and real.
Take Victor himself. It would be easy enough to write off this sweet-faced, inoffensive protagonist as a milquetoast, but he is painfully recognizable to other high school closet cases who compartmentalized their real personalities in tandem with denying their same-sex attraction. The show says as much, especially in the countless instances where Victor prioritizes his family’s peace over his own emotional wellbeing. Faced with the double whammy of “eldest sibling” and “closeted teenager,” Victor is a placid peacekeeper, cooking and entertaining and constantly telling the lie “I’m fine” in order to appease his parents.
In the pilot episode, Victor’s mother vents to him about her marital problems and her struggle to put on a brave face.
“All that pretending,” she says, “it can just be so—”
Victor finishes her sentence. “Exhausting.”
As part of sacrificing his personality at the altar of social harmony, Victor also tries to make it work in a heterosexual relationship. This is another piece of the gay teen puzzle that rarely makes it on-screen – the only other recent example that comes to mind is Netflix’s “Alex Strangelove” – despite its near ubiquity within the community.
“If there’s a chance for me to be happy and normal, why not try?” Victor asks Simon.
Emphasis on the normal. If there’s one thing “Love, Victor” gets right above all, it’s that it can be even more difficult to come out to yourself than it can be to come out to other people. In “Love, Simon,” Simon admits his gay identity to the viewer in the opening monologue. But for Victor – as for countless other gay men and lesbians living in a world where heterosexual relationships are the default – denial is a powerful force.
It is these small-yet-groundbreaking touches that make “Love, Victor” truly special. And that nuance extends beyond its protagonist. Stock characters like the shallow popular girl and never-at-his-own-house best friend contain hidden depths. Victor’s parents are characters unto themselves, with personal foibles and insecurities. Even Victor’s too-good-to-be-true love interest had his own dark reckoning with homophobia.
Yet the show grounds its fluffy, kid-friendly content in these realities without thudding to a halt. As in “Love, Simon,” there are laugh-out-loud jokes among the more predictable humor, and every performer is lovable. Cameos from the film’s original cast are the cherry on top of this comfort sundae.
Since “Love, Victor” falls somewhere between “One Day at a Time” and “Atypical,” queer viewers very well may spurn it for grittier shows like “Euphoria.” But not every gay teen drama has to be harrowing to get it right. “Love, Victor” grasps the simple, delicate truths at the heart of a reality most Americans seem content to ignore: Coming out, even in 2020, is not easy. [A-]