With 2020’s LGBTQ Pride Month off to a less-than-celebratory start, there couldn’t be a better time to retreat into the cozy world of “Love, Simon,” where adolescent romance and self-acceptance can be found atop a Ferris wheel.
When it debuted in theaters two years ago, “Love, Simon” was declared a cinematic milestone. Greg Berlanti’s coming-of-age film garnered mixed reviews, but nonetheless broke fresh ground as Hollywood’s first mainstream comedy to center on a gay teenager.
The legacy of “Love, Simon” looms large over Hulu’s charming, thoughtful and binge-worthy series spinoff, “Love, Victor.” To be fair, the TV adaptation’s 10-episode first season shares much of its big screen predecessor’s DNA, featuring a teen protagonist struggling with his sexuality, a diverse cast and, yes, even that Ferris wheel.
Still, there are marked differences between “Love, Victor,” which premieres Wednesday on Hulu, and “Love, Simon.” For one, 15-year-old Victor (Michael Cimino) hails from a religious, working-class Colombian-American family ― a far cry from the privileged life of Simon (Nick Robinson), who lived in an impeccably furnished home with his upper-middle class (and presumably agnostic) white parents.
“Keeping it as authentic and real as the movie was important to me,” Cimino, whose credits include “Annabelle Comes Home” and the CBS series “Training Day,” told HuffPost. “There was a responsibility [to the source material]. But I wanted to take it from the perspective of a traditional Latino family, a family of lower income.”
“Love, Victor” begins with Victor starting his first day at Atlanta’s Creekwood High ― the same school featured in “Love, Simon” ― after relocating from Texas under mysterious circumstances. Before long, he joins the basketball team, finds a geeky best friend, Felix (Anthony Turpel, a standout), and develops an interest in Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson), the most popular girl in his class.
Still, Victor can’t shake the feeling that something’s not quite right. His parents’ strained marriage and socioeconomic struggles weigh heavily on his self-confidence. But he also can’t take his eyes off a dreamy gay classmate, Benji (George Sear). So he begins corresponding with Simon (Robinson, mostly in voiceover), now attending college in New York with his boyfriend, over Instagram.
“Victor’s journey will feel familiar in that he has religious ideas and cultural expectations to contend with,” showrunner Brian Tanen told HuffPost. “There are complications to this character being himself. This is a less idealized version that reflects the real stories of people whose experiences are not always ideal.”
Cimino, who is of mixed Puerto Rican, Italian and German heritage, drew from the experiences of his gay cousin to bring Victor to life.
“He’s the most charismatic person I’ve met in my life,” the actor said. “He’s a strong-willed person, but when he was younger, he was more reserved and scared. ... It was important for me to represent who he is now, as well as who he used to be. Being able to represent his struggle was an utmost honor.”
Well-meaning intentions aside, “Love, Victor” weathered controversy early on. The first snapshots of the series hit the internet in February, when it was also announced that the show would debut on Hulu rather than Disney+, for which it had been initially developed.
Neither of those streaming services — both of which are owned by Disney — issued a public statement explaining the reasoning behind the swap. A number of media outlets, however, suggested that the show’s references to alcohol use and marital discord between adults didn’t gel with the family-focused vibe of Disney+. The prevailing assumption, however, was that the show’s narrative was “too gay” for its original platform.
Such criticisms overlook the fact that Disney+ has made visible strides to diversify its output, notably in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” and a Pixar short, “Out,” both of which feature gay characters and same-sex couples. Still, questions as to why the service jettisoned “Love, Victor” remain prevalent, even in otherwise positive reviews of the show.
For Cimino and Tanen, they view their series’ new home as an opportunity rather than a liability. Though both men are tight-lipped about what may be in store for Season 2 ― for which a creative team has reportedly been commissioned ― they hope future episodes dial up the heat between Victor and his romantic partner(s), as well as the dramatic tension across the board.
“There are some themes that are advanced for a young audience,” Cimino said. “Disney+ was nothing but supportive of our show and got us to where we are now. Hulu will push us further. I think that speaks for itself.”
Tanen agreed, adding, “I think it’ll make our show better, and it won’t constrain the kind of story we want to tell.”
“Our dream for ‘Love, Victor’ isn’t for it to be just a coming-out journey,” he said. “It’s also about a kid who has relationships and explores the sexual parts of his identity. So it’s our hope that Victor will experience those things as he gets older, like a real young adult.”