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High School Does More With '90s Music Than Any Show on TV

The Tegan and Sara biopic series knows exactly what a Tori Amos song can do.
  • Railey and Seazynn Gilliland in High School (Photo: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee)
    Railey and Seazynn Gilliland in High School (Photo: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee)

    It's when the mom sings Tori Amos. That's when High School reveals itself as the kind of show that makes you pause to call your friends and say you love them, or maybe stare out the window while you remember a teenage feeling so big you couldn't take it.

    That's hard to capture in a logline, so Amazon Freevee is understandably describing the series as a coming-of-age tale inspired by the real-life adolescence of Tegan and Sara, twin sisters who left Calgary to become world-famous indie rock stars. And that's essentially correct. Over its first season, which is adapted from Tegan and Sara's memoir of the same name, the show does indeed depict the girls (played by twins Railey and Seazynn Gilliland) discovering their knack for songwriting while they navigate their suburban lives. We meet their mother Simone (Cobie Smulders), their stepfather Patrick (Kyle Bornheimer), and a passel of their friends, mostly other girls who are just as good-hearted and lightly rebellious as they are. They fight with each other, tearfully make up, laugh at immature jokes, and swear on a stack of mixtapes that they would literally die to meet Billie Joe Armstrong. Typical teenage stuff.

    But while we're living them, our lives never seem typical to us, even if we don't end up with a record deal. The series, created by Laura Kittrell and Clea DuVall, understands that. That's why every character, not just Tegan and Sara, is fully realized, from the specificity of their clothes to the distinct way they speak. Episodes also frequently replay scenes from multiple perspectives, so that we learn how everyone in a conversation internalized and reacted to things.

    This would be enough to make High School a worthy heir to the all-time teen classic My So-Called Life, but it burrows even deeper with the help of '90s music cues.

    As you'd expect from a show about future indie rockers, it's filled with songs, but unlike a series that plays a bit of Pearl Jam just to tell us what year it is, every sound drop here teaches us something. When Sara (played as the blunter, more stubborn sister by Seazynn Gilliland) starts blasting Nirvana while she's working with her stepdad, it provokes an argument that reveals an ugly fissure in their relationship. When Tegan (the gentle rule-follower, played by Railey Gilliland) goes to a Green Day concert, the music unleashes a fizzing excitement we haven't seen in her before.

    This tactic links High School to wave of recent, excellent shows about young people in the '90s, from Yellowjackets to The Midnight Club to the painfully short-lived Derry Girls. All of them use music well. One of the best moments in Yellowjackets comes when the stranded young ladies amuse themselves by choreographing a dance routine to Montell Jordan’s "This Is How We Do It," and it feels exactly right. You just know they all loved that song when they were back home, and it's both hilarious and devastating to see them have some innocent fun up there on the mountain. The Midnight Club takes a more symbolic route, playing a song like L7's riot grrrl classic "Pretend That We’re Dead" to ironically comment on its cast of terminally ill teen characters, while Derry Girls uses a slew of uptempo hits to evoke the indomitable energy of kids who refuse to let the Troubles get them down.

    In High School the music goes even deeper. As the girls discover their sexuality (like the real-life Tegan and Sara, they're both queer) and their artistic voices, the soundtrack bursts with '90s rock women like Courtney Love and Liz Phair, or weirdo bands like The Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins. The suggestion is that music is finding these kids, even when they're not consciously aware of it, and helping them make sense of their lives. When they're hurting, there's a song. When they're falling in love, there's a song. The art is beckoning them, always.

    It's beckoning the other characters, too, which brings us back to the scene where Simone is driving alone, singing out loud to "The Waitress," a deep cut from Tori Amos about a woman who's sick of playing nice with a two-faced server at a local restaurant. It says a lot about her character that she even knows this tune, and it's no accident that it arrives when she's in the midst of a professional crisis of her own. Similarly, the season ends with a Sinéad O’Connor track that applies to the emotional state of almost every character on the show. When we listen, we can hear that they all deserve the grace the music can provide them.

    High School premieres October 14 on Amazon Freevee with four episodes. New episodes will release weekly through November 11.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: High School, Amazon Freevee, Clea DuVall, Cobie Smulders, Kyle Bornheimer, Railey Gilliland, Sara Quin, Seazynn Gilliland, Tegan Quin, Tegan and Sara