For a modest, likeable teen comedy, the feature film Love, Simon got a lot of attention when it was released in February of 2018, and for good reason. Because in 2018, it was exceedingly rare for a major film studio like 20th Century Fox to release a gay teen romance. The result was a combination of praise and scrutiny for the story of Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), dreamboat closeted teen who ends up falling for a boy via secret texts, before ultimately arriving at a ferris-wheel kiss that was either a fairy tale ending or a sign that the kids today are all right. While the film was sweet and undeniably well-intentioned, there were plenty of gripes about the relatively painless coming out process for a main character who was white, attractive, economically comfortable, and equipped with a support system that included the two most aggressively supportive and liberal-minded parents in the universe. When it came time to envision the TV adaptation of the film — premiering Friday on Hulu — producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger decided to center the spinoff series on a teen explicitly unlike Simon Spiers.
"My story is nothing like yours," says Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) in voice-over as he types out a message to Simon in the show's opening moments. By this point, Simon has graduated from suburban Atlanta's Creekwood High, and his story of true love realized at the winter carnival has become the stuff of swoony high-school legend. Victor, tormented by doubt and unable to say the word "gay" even in a secret email, blurts out to Simon, "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." And so, from the show's very first moments, we see that Love, Victor intends to not only present an alternative version of Love, Simon that isn't centered on a white protagonist, but one that is quite literally in conversation with its predecessor. When Simon (who's living in Brooklyn with his ferris wheel beau Bram) begins responding to Victor's messages at the end of episode 1, the two build a bridge between a film and a TV series that is a rather fascinating way to reckon with the adaptation process.
So Love, Victor promises to be a less-charmed teen coming-out story than the one we got in Love, Simon. Does the show follow through on that promise? In a word: kinda.
Victor's family life is certainly a lot messier than Simon's ever was. The series begins as the Salazars' — mom (Ugly Betty's Ana Ortiz), dad (One Day at a Time's James Martinez, really working over the gay-unfriendly dad archetype), Victor, sullen sister Pilar (Isabella Ferreira), and adorable kiddo Adrian (Mateo Fernandez) — move to Atlanta from Texas, for reasons that are initially mysterious but which ultimately spell even more complications for the family. Like the Spiers, they're a loving family, but there are far more indications that Victor might not be welcomed with a PFLAG parade if he ever comes out. He's also starting from the bottom at school, dealing with the usual complicated social politics and some low-key bullying from a rival on the basketball team. In an environment where your classmates get mocked for eating a salad, and your mom tries to set up the flamboyantly dressed man at church with her sister (to which your dad responds by conspiratorially flopping his wrist), there are some serious messages being sent to young Victor.
Almost immediately, Victor encounters two people who will shape this first season: Mia (Rachel Hilson), a popular high school beauty who thinks he's cute; and Benji (George Sear), a Nick Robinson lookalike in a Pink Floyd tee and immaculately rumpled hair. He's also openly gay, has a boyfriend, and works at the coffee shop where Victor gets a job. For a variety of reasons — including, seemingly, genuine attraction — Victor moves in the direction of dating Mia. But the complications laid out are plentiful. Through it all, Simon remains on the other end of a text exchange, doling out advice and acting as something akin to the heard-but-never-seen Sally in Felicity.
Rounding out Victor's social circle are his hyper-friendly upstairs neighbor Felix (Anthony Turpel), whose Seth Cohen vibe is immediate and incredibly welcome. His crush on Mia's bestie Lake (Bebe Wood, completing her trifecta of gay-centered TV series, after The Real O'Neals and The New Normal) has such old-school O.C. Seth-and-Summer vibes that I defy anyone not to be charmed. Their chemistry and sweet/spiky storyline just might be the show's strongest element.
Which is where we encounter the issue. In a show that is meant to offer a more complicated version of Love, Simon, we still end up with a series where the least compelling character on the canvas is Victor himself. Like Simon, Victor comes across as queer in his attraction to Benji and his not-like-the-other-guys inner monologue, but the edges feel sanded off. I was hoping for more messiness, or at least more of the kind of culture absorption that queer kids are constantly gravitating to. There's a sweetly dorky scene where Victor and Benji jam out to Carly Rae Jepsen, a queer touchstone to be sure, but even that only leads to the most heterosexual of actions: Benji playing a slow, emo cover of "Call Me Maybe" with his band. (And before you bring up Schitt's Creek and Tina Turner: I know. This is different. It just is.)
There's also some promise in the show's early going that Victor's burgeoning sexuality might be less definitionaly cut-and-dried than Simon's was. Torn between Mia and Benji, Victor's sexuality presents as a bit more fluid and less certain. It's exciting because it feels like in addition to his family life being messier, there's the intriguing prospect that we might get to join Victor on this journey towards figuring himself out, with the destination a bit closer to the middle of the Kinsey scale than we might've expected. But like some other elements of Love, Victor, the show promises more than it can deliver. Similarly, a late-season trip to New York City offers up a ton of possibility in terms of Victor beginning to come into his own, but that too ends up being more neat and tidy and less viscerally exhilarating than it could be.
This isn't to say that Love, Victor is a total letdown. It stays true to the romance at its core, and in that way its smoothed edges feel like an almost defiant choice. Choosing to swoon to the beat of its own Jack Antonoff-soundalike drummer. Certainly the most baffling notion, having watched the whole season, is why Disney+ moved the show to Hulu because it didn't "fit" the family-oriented brand. If you were hopeful that that might portend any kind of mature content, take a cold shower. And then maybe start wondering what exactly about this show runs counter to a family brand. ANYWAY, there's a lot to enjoy in Love, Victor— from likeable characters, to some great performances (Ortiz, Ferreira, Turpel, and Wood in particular), to a well-chosen guest cast that includes Ali Wong, Mekhi Pfifer, Sophia Bush, Leslie Grossman, Andy Richter, and in a welcome callback to the film, Natasha "Growth" Rothwell reprising her role as Ms. Albright.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to Love, Victor is that I want to see more. TV shows with gay protagonists get a lot of scrutiny because we don't get enough of them. I like this one enough to want it to continue, to deepen, to keep complicating itself. "My story is nothing like yours," Victor tells Simon. I want that to become more and more true. The more it does, the more it will feel like a genuine part of all our stories.
All ten first season episodes of Love, Victor drop on Hulu Friday June 19th.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.