Review of "Love, Victor," Season 2

Freed from the Disney shackles, "Love, Victor" embraces a surprising frankness.

This week Hulu debuted the second season of Love, Victor, the first program teen drama with an openly gay main character in the Disney empire. I was lukewarm on the first season when I reviewed it last year because of its passionless neutering of its gay characters compared to their straight counterparts and because of its uncomfortable assumptions that to be authentically gay is to be campy, to reject masculinity and traditional gender identities, and live isolated from mainstream society. The second season represents a rather dramatic change that plays like someone read my review and took notes. That’s almost certainly not the case, of course, and is probably more due to the internal politics at Disney.

The company bounced the first season from Disney+ to Hulu for fear of conservative backlash, but times have changed. Since that low moment, Disney+ changed its tune, and now its marquee teen show, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, features a gay couple who are even allowed to kiss! Sure, Disney’s gays are campy showtune stereotypes, but it’s still a sea-change for the House of Mouse.

The first season of Love, Victor was designed for a Disney+ audience and went out of its way to avoid offending a presumed family audience by keeping its gay characters chaste. Now working with the looser strictures of Hulu, the series has embraced a remarkable frankness, particularly for its genre. While never explicit, it now includes sex scenes that would never make the cut at Disney+ and plenty of sexual innuendo that walks up to the line of being almost a bit too much for its genre and audience.

The new episodes pick up where we left off, in the aftermath of Victor Salazar (Michael Simino) coming out to his initially disapproving parents and struggling to live openly at school as a gay teen in a romantic relationship with his boyfriend Benji (George Sear) in the face of his classmates’ mix of condescending curiosity, well-meaning unhelpfulness, and whispered homophobia. Victor’s two main story arcs concern the basketball team’s discomfort with having a gay player and his slow realization that his boyfriend is not, in fact, perfect. As with so many second seasons, these episodes are the inverse of the first. Last year was an empowering story of Victor finding himself and achieving self-actualization. This year things fall apart until the final cliffhanger gives him a moment of clarity intended to set up a third season.

However, in attempting to be more open and honest, the producers over-corrected a bit too much. The lightness and humor of the first season are less obvious here. Victor’s eccentric oddball best friend Felix (Anthony Turpel), a bright spot last year, is sanded down into a generic Adam Brody / Cole Sprouse type this year, and occasionally the show’s plots come close to issue-of-the-week treacle. Without a clear antagonist, most of the conflict revolves around the tired cliché of characters not telling each other what they should have said long ago, and in the name of creating conflict the producers lean too far into making Benji seem in the wrong even when he has a defensible point. They shouldn’t be afraid to let Victor be angry or even unlikeable once in a while. While he is our POV character, he is portrayed as saintly even when he is wrong.

But plenty of credit goes to the show for correcting its biggest failing of last year. In its most bizarre episode of the first season, a group of older gay teens and twentysomethings very strongly imply to Victor that he is not a good gay unless he acts more effeminate, embraces camp and drag, and abandon family and mainstream culture for the urban gay club scene. It was an uncomfortable message. While camp and drag are an essential part of the queer communities that arose in the late twentieth century, that community, for all its historical political and social benefits, is not synonymous with sexual identity or even with the gay experience as a whole.

While Love, Victor is not a radical enough show to take a firm stand on the question of assimilation vs. the preservation of historic queer cultural markers, this season did intelligently make space for a discussion of masculinity and homosexuality and whether one can or should be both traditionally masculine and gay. Its approach to this conversation is a bit muddled. Victor stands up against stereotyping and mandatory queer aesthetics on the one hand, but the show also suggests it’s morally indefensible for a gay man to be attracted primarily to masculine men instead of effeminate men. It finds space for gay characters to embrace and exist in an inclusive mainstream culture, but it also heavily implies that showtunes, decorating, and fashion are the proper province of gays. Victor’s embrace of his sexual identity progresses through a growing interest in fashion, clubbing, and karaoke. (Cutesy choices like costuming Victor in clothes reminiscent of Ferris Bueller to play hooky, while making him unaware of the homage, muddle the message more.) The show suggests that a stereotypically gay teen, Rahim, is more authentically queer because of his love of fashion, decorating, and cattiness.

But a show actually having a conversation about these issues still counts as progressive in a TV landscape where such questions aren’t easy and aren’t often dealt with at all, let alone in a half-hour dramedy intended for a younger audience.