It was a milestone decades in the making. The entire history of film in the making, really.
Love, Simon was the first gay teen romance ever released by a major studio. It had the budget of a major studio, the marketing arm of a major studio, and everyone was meant to see and swoon over it, not just the gay community. That was huge.
It had an appealing protagonist, a fizzy cast of supporting characters, thrilling emotional highs, and an endearing, easy-to-root-for love story that culminated in one of those big, spectacular, only-in-the-movies grand romantic gestures: a fireworks-scored kiss at the top of a ferris wheel, to the cheers of everyone watching below. This one, for the first time in a movie like this, was between two boys.
But it took so much time to get the top of that ferris wheel, and the crowd that had gathered to observe that kiss was so large and so scrutinous, that the milestone’s journey back down to earth was inevitably through a gauntlet of debate.
For all the affection the film and its success earned, there were concerns about who Simon—a white, privileged, straight-passing teen—really represents. There was exhaustion over another LGBT+ film being centered around the struggle to come out, and questions over what compromises had to be made for a studio to greenlight and fund it.
But at least from a business standpoint, things shook out optimistically. It was a commercial hit with a passionate fanbase, proving the mainstream viability of a LGBT+ story to the crucial youth audience. Those things matter to a studio’s bottom line, and would ostensibly encourage more films like it, so that they are no longer considered risks or milestones but just part of the pantheon of teen movies.
That’s why it was so heartening when a TV sequel set in the Love, Simon universe called Love, Victor was announced. What’s a more powerful sign of normalized Hollywood success than franchising?
The series was developed for and intended to launch on the Disney+ streaming service. Then the shocking news broke that the series was instead being shifted to Hulu, which Disney owns, as it was reportedly deemed not appropriate for Disney+’s family audience.
Love, Victor, which premieres in the midst of Pride month next week on Hulu, is wonderful.
It is charming and endearing in all the ways Love, Simon was, playing just the right kind of melody on your heart strings to keep you invested in a 10-episode run. It course corrects for some of the more obtuse identity politics of the film—Victor (Michael Cimino) is Latino, from a working-class and less-tolerant religious family, and more curious about sexuality on a spectrum—while, for better or worse, mimicking the beats of Love, Simon’s coming-out narrative.
It is a series that, alongside the impressive High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Disney+ should be proud to have and is richer for having. The company line, as reported by Variety, was that the show’s depiction of alcohol and its conversations about sex did not fit with the Disney+ family brand—an incongruous and arguably hypocritical position given that the service hosts a slew of PG-13 titles, a mature slate of Marvel films, the adult-skewing The Mandalorian, sex-adjacent films like Splash, and, of all things, the full library of The Simpsons.
The optics of Disney’s decision, then, are terrible. Its arbitrary and inconsistent rulings about content telegraph the message that executives deemed a gay love story inappropriate for families. Whether or not that’s the truth, that is the loud, unignorable message sent, especially now that we’ve viewed the entire series and found nothing in it more objectionable than any of the properties mentioned above. It’s nearly impossible to not see the justification of “alcohol use” as a flimsy shield for what the service is really saying about what isn’t family-friendly about Love, Victor.
This isn’t the first time a series that was intended for Disney+ was moved over to Hulu for thematic reasons, following High Fidelity in February. The difference is how chaste Love, Victor is by comparison—and by comparison to so much other content on Disney+.
Confusion over what Disney-owned content moves to Hulu and what gets the Mouse seal of approval on Disney+ has been a constant refrain since the service’s launch, as has a relevant concern. When it’s not casting off series entirely—or suspending production, as it did with the reboot of Lizzie Maguire—the massive, monolithic institution has been snipping and cutting certain projects in order to either make them more kid-friendly or to retrofit them to its own, arbitrary moral standard, depending on how you look at it.
So what we have here are two things: A gay teen rom-com series that has been construed as not family friendly based on programming decisions—something truly angering—and a gay teen rom-com series that is genuinely worth watching, which is something to be celebrated.
From moment one, the series finds a clever hook into the film’s letter-writing formula, in which Simon becomes pen pals with another closeted gay student. Here, Victor is a new student at the same school Simon attended and where he is now a legend because of the epic romantic journey he went on.
Victor is questioning his sexuality and wonders if this new start is an opportunity to live honestly about it. Instead he realizes that, because of his circumstances, he can’t—not right now, no matter the path that Simon blazed for him. So Victor reaches out, messaging Simon over Instagram to tell him how he feels: “I just want to say: Screw you. 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.”
In some ways, it’s how the series immediately reconciles some of the criticism levied at the film for the idyllic support Simon received after coming out, not to mention his class and race privilege. It also neatly threads the universe of the movie into this new show, with dashes of “It Gets Better” positivity. Victor and Simon become friends over social media, with Simon coaching Victor through setbacks and frustrations on his journey to feeling comfortable with who he is, reassuring him that there is happiness waiting for him on the other side.
That so much of the story follows the same trajectory as Love, Simon will irk those who took issue with the fact that, for a LGBT+ romance, the film spent so little time with the same-sex couple actually together and happy. And, with the exception of a standout episode set in New York, there is not exactly a broad representation of gay identity here.
There will be those who wish that coming out wasn’t depicted in the show as it so often is in pop culture, rife with negativity and internal torture. And there will also be those who scoff at how seemingly low the stakes seem to be for Victor, in comparison to what many other people in the LGBT+ community go through.
But Love, Victor makes the same important point that Love, Simon did, which is why so many rallied so passionately around the film. In the grand tradition of John Hughes teen movies, it revealed that people feel the weight of being an outsider even if, superficially, it might look to a stranger like they have everything going for them. How we carry the burden of secrets, of shame, of uncertain identities is a formative part of our comings-of-age. It’s an experience that’s both specific and universal.
That’s what’s so aggravating about this Disney+, family-friendly controversy. Love, Victor is not edgy. People will hate that about it. It pushes hardly any boundaries when it comes to revealing questioning teens’ experiences with sex or the darker elements of coming out.
While some will criticize Victor’s story for how it is sanitized to the point of being pleasantly universal, we appreciate that about it. There’s value in that for a certain audience—in fact, the very audience that Disney+ is supposed to be servicing, and maybe even the audience that wants something like this for families to watch and learn from.
It can seem like this is a grudge we’re obsessing over. Love, Victor is airing for all to see on Hulu, so who cares? It wasn’t canceled or buried. If anything, it’s more support for the argument that Hulu has risen as the streaming service with the best across-the-board original series. (Ramy, PEN15, The Handmaid’s Tale, Casual, The Act, Shrill, Normal People, Catch-22, The Great, to name a few.)
But the more that positive notes about projects like this are drowned out by controversies like the “family-friendly” debate, the more that ferris wheel is going to keep going ’round with nothing to show for it—a spectacular monument to progress spinning its wheels.