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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hulu’s Love, Victor brims with tenderness but could use more bite

Illustration for article titled Hulu’s iLove, Victor /ibrims with tenderness but could use more bite
Image: Love, Victor (Hulu)
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Love, Simon was an undeniable milestone for queer representation in film, albeit one that also came with a lot of concessions attached. It was the first major studio rom-com that centered on a gay teen and his love story, but Simon’s journey was also largely devoid of any mess—a neatly packaged rom-com about a wealthy white boy, which the genre is hardly short on. While seeing such a widely released gay love story have its big moment did feel special, it was also difficult to overlook the ways Love, Simon catered to straight viewers.

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Love, Victor, Hulu’s spinoff series that’s also set in the halls of Creekwood High where Simon went through his coming-out journey, seeks to challenge the notion that Simon’s story is universal. “My story is nothing like yours,” protagonist Victor (Michael Cimino) declares in the first episode, and over the course of the series, his own process for understanding himself and his desires looks different than it did for Simon. But Love, Victor still holds a lot back, playing it largely safe when it comes to its depictions of queerness and coming out.

Victor Salazar is the charming peacemaker in his family, which has uprooted from Texas and arrived in Atlanta for a new start. When family tension arises—and it often does—he offers up pancakes and distractions, even on his own birthday. Victor preoccupies himself so much with taking care of others that he tamps down his own wants and needs. He knows he’s “like Simon”—his cautious way of tip-toeing around a queer identity—but he also views coming out as yet another tension in his home life. Comments from his father Armando (James Martinez) go beyond assuming heterosexuality; he’s often explicitly homophobic in front of Victor. Coming from a working-class, very religious, Latinx family, Victor confronts cultural expectations throughout the series, while dealing with elements like financial insecurity and family drama that compound his struggles to figure himself out.

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Feeling like he has no one to talk to about himself, Victor relies on messaging the original movie’s Simon as a way to unpack his feelings. Their exchanges are sweet, and an episode in the back half of the season unites Victor’s and Simon’s universes explicitly. This New York-set episode finally digs deeper into the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all coming out story, reiterating that there’s no one way to be gay. But it does so with such broad strokes, so that even though queer life is new to Victor, it occasionally feels like the show is gently ushering in a straight audience. The episode has some of the depths that are lacking in the rest of the series, but it’s just a quick glimpse.

Love, Victor doesn’t come close to reinventing the rom-com, but takes familiar tropes of the genre and applies them to queer characters. As with Love, Simon, that’s technically meaningful in terms of queer representation. It’s important for young queer viewers to be able to see themselves in the stories that get told over and over again. There are still so few queer rom-coms, even on television. And fortunately, Love, Victor’s rom-com moments are fantastically executed. An acoustic cover of “Call Me Maybe” stands out as one of the sweetest, most heartwarming moments, but the series brims with these instant hits—and not just for Victor. Victor’s high-school social circle—which includes rich popular girl Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson), the bully who thinks he’s more of a class clown Andrew (Mason Gooding), actual class clown Felix (Anthony Turpel), and gossip queen Lake (Bebe Wood)—all have intermittent crushes on each other, so that there’s often multiple love triangles going at once. Love, Victor shows the high-stakes tension and turmoil of teen love very well, and fires on all cylinders when it comes to classic rom-com sequences.

But a lot of Love, Victor’s strengths are in the stories it tells alongside its rom-com set-ups. Several well-written subplots get into the complexities of family complications. Within Victor’s family, his sister Pilar (Isabella Ferreira) has a strained relationship with their mother Isabel (Ana Ortiz), which only worsens when a major family secret comes out. Parents Isabel and Armando are fully realized characters, expanding the show’s world beyond its teens, and that’s definitely one area where Love, Victor schools Love, Simon—in the latter, the parents feel more like devices than real people. Isabel and Armando’s marriage is not as idyllic as it initially looks, and the stressful hints that eventually turn into full-blown conflict are captivating from the start. Ana Ortiz is a standout in the cast, and her character’s arcs with both Armando and Pilar are well-paced and detailed. Much of the show confronts familial expectations and the ways people put on a performance around relatives. These subplots work well alongside Victor’s growing understanding of his queer identity.

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Character development is strong across the board, with each of the teens feeling real and specific beyond their teen comedy tropes. When Victor wonders if his natural chemistry with Mia might be more than that, the two start dating, but Mia isn’t just a point in a love triangle. While her rich-but-sad-lonely-kid arc is a little played out, there’s enough specificity written into her character to give her depiction sharper edges. Mia struggles to connect with Isabel and vice versa, both dealing with their own familial baggage. Lake and Felix contend with parental issues on the periphery of Victor’s narrative as well. Felix spending so much time with the Salazar family seems like just a sitcom trope at first, but there’s more to it than that.

Love, Victor’s interest in ties beyond romantic ones bolsters the story, portraying friendship and family relationships as equally meaningful. But the choice to have Victor in a relationship with a girl for the whole season is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it adds some nuance to Victor’s self-discovery. He researches queerness, wonders if he might be bisexual, questioning if he can just date Mia and ignore his obvious feelings for Benji (George Sear), the hot, out barista he works with. But Love, Victor isn’t fully equipped to dig into those nuances, especially since it seems like it’s holding back at times. Ultimately, rather than Victor and Mia’s relationship being a nuanced look at queer identity, it seems a little like the show not wanting to be too gay.

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Many times, the default narrative for queer love stories hinges on the coming-out process, which is really just one small part of queer identity and desire. Love, Victor makes good on its promise to expand beyond the narrow confines of Simon’s story, but it doesn’t get very far. A second season is already underway, and maybe now that Victor’s more sure of himself, the show can be, too.

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