Tegan and Sara Drama ‘High School,’ From Director Clea DuVall, Is the ‘My So-Called Life’ of Queer Teen Dreams: TV Review

If you’re someone of a certain (gay) persuasion, all I have to say about “High School” to pique your interest is that it’s a) a new coming-of-age drama about twin musicians Tegan and Sara Quin that’s b) based on Tegan and Sara’s own memoir, c) co-stars Cobie Smulders as their mother and d) was created in large part by no other than Clea DuVall, whose performance in “But I’m a Cheerleader” among many other credits has long made her the subject of many a queer awakening. Whether these points immediately intrigue you or not, though, you should also know that the show is also great. You don’t have to know who Tegan and Sara are to appreciate their story, which explores loneliness, connection and longing with such palpable empathy.

Starring newcomers Railey and Seazynn Gililand as Tegan and Sara, respectively, “High School” opens in late ’90s Calgary months before the twins discover their musical talents, let alone that they’ll soon make an unusually good songwriting team. In fact, they’re barely even friends in the pilot, which follows their first day at a new high school by emphasizing the divide between them. Co-written by DuVall and co-showrunner Laura Kittrell, this first follows the perspectives of each twin to underline their similarities, differences, and all the tiny misunderstandings that only widen the gulf between them. Played with admirable depth by the Gililands, the show’s Tegan and Sara each have their own kind of confidence and insecurities that keep them from blending together into one, as is their greatest fear. Throughout its eight-episode season, “High School” also expands its point of view sections beyond the twins to include their mother, Simone (Smulders, excellent), stepfather (Kyle Bornheimer) and friends.

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That it takes several episodes for Tegan and Sara even to stumble upon their first guitar will no doubt surprise any preexisting fans tuning in, but it proves a smart move on a narrative level, anyway. The moment Tegan and Sara find music is also the moment they find each other on a level they never quite have before, and that’s the kind of growth a viewer can only truly appreciate given more background on why, exactly, that’s such a big deal. On the surface, the twins find a hobby that lets them have fun without being in competition with the other. Listening more closely, however, makes clear that songwriting also allows both of them to express themselves, and their burgeoning queerness, with more conviction than shame.

Because unbeknownst to both twins, each of them is going through her own awakening at her own pace. Sara, somehow simultaneously the more straightforward and secretive twin, has fallen in love with their friend Phoebe (Olivia Rouyre) and has been dating her behind closed doors for months. Tegan, confused by Sara and Phoebe’s newfound habit of shutting her out, is therefore left to make her own friend in Maya (a heartbreaking Amanda Fix), who in turn quickly falls for the frustratingly oblivious Tegan. Throw in Sara’s new drama club circle of talkative Natalie (Esther McGregor) and mysterious Ali (Brianne Tju) and “High School” quickly assembles itself a spunky friend group roiling with queer tension throughout all their messy teen exploits. DuVall establishes a directing style that takes each of their interior lives — and the young actors embodying them — seriously, capturing moments of pain, love, lust and anger that might otherwise go unnoticed.

For as good as “High School” is, though, it was hard for me not to feel a melancholic pang while watching it. Even now, decades into television’s explosion into producing thousands of episodes a year, you can count shows like it — “Freaks and Geeks,” “My So-Called Life,” “Everything Sucks!” — on a single hand, and even fewer that take queer teens half as seriously. That “High School” will also be dropping on “Amazon Freevee” (the confusing platform formerly known as IMDb TV) is even more frustrating. Will the audience that deserves to see themselves onscreen even know where to look? Given the way the show’s first season ends without much resolution (no spoilers but: they’re not exactly a successful band yet), I sure as hell hope so.

“High School” premieres its first four episodes Friday, Oct. 14 on Amazon Freevee.

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