Going through adolescence with an identical twin has its challenges. You are in the midst of a struggle to define who you want to be, and here is this person who looks exactly like you, lives in your house, goes to your school, and is constantly inviting comparisons from outsiders. For teenagers Tegan and Sara Quin — or, at least, for the lightly fictionalized versions of the beloved Canadian indie-pop duo that twins Railey and Seazynn Gilliland play in the new half-hour drama High School — things are even more complicated. They look the same. They dress in the same baggy, mid-Nineties style. They listen to the same music, and in time begin playing their own music together. They are both gradually realizing that they’re queer, even if one is further along in that journey than the other when High School begins. They have slight differences in temperament and vocal pitch, but at this age there’s not a lot to distinguish one from the other. At times, it is wonderful for each of them to have someone they can relate to so deeply; at others, one sister starts to view the other as a mirror image she wishes she could stop looking at for a while.
But, as one of their parents reminds them, “Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck with each other.”
Executive produced by Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell, High School(*) is an adaptation of the 2019 memoir by Tegan and Sara, who also serve as producers on the show. Over the course of the first season, we hear the Gilliland siblings perform embryonic versions of songs that the real Tegan and Sara would record years or even decades later. But the series doesn’t require a deep affection for or encyclopedic knowledge of their music. I went into High School knowing only a handful of Tegan and Sara songs, and fell hard for it anyway because of how well DuVall, Kittrell, and company capture the thrilling, horrifying, profoundly uncomfortable experience of adolescence, and the specific ways it manifests itself between its two identical-yet-not heroines.
(*) The show is part of the growing library of originals for Freevee, a.k.a. The Streamer Formerly Known as IMDbTV. Whatever terrible name it uses, you can watch their shows — several of them quite good, like the loose comedy Sprung and the quasi-spinoff Bosch: Legacy — via the Amazon Prime Video app; presentation-wise, the only difference between these and, say, Jack Reacher, is that there are periodic commercial breaks.
High School begins in Calgary in the fall of 1995. Tegan and Sara live with their mother Simone (Cobie Smulders, terrific, and once again putting her native Canadian accent to good use) and stepfather Patrick (Kyle Bornheimer, excellent in a rare dramatic role). They are preparing to start at a new high school where they know no one but each other. And since Sara has spent the summer freezing out Tegan while monopolizing their once-shared best friend Phoebe (Olivia Rouyre), both are essentially on their own.
DuVall writes and/or directs the majority of the eight-episode season, with Kittrell handling a few scripts and Rebecca Asher helming a few installments in the middle. An actress (Veep, But I’m a Cheerleader) and sometime-director, DuVall had an early pandemic hit with the Hulu film Happiest Season, which was stylistically a fairly conventional rom-com, albeit one where the central characters were all gay women. Here, she takes a more impressionistic, indie-film approach that very much suits the material. Scenes are alternately very short or lingering, in a way that neatly conveys how, at this age, life either comes at you very fast or seems to take forever to happen, and how difficult it can be to figure out the reasons for one speed versus the other. Significant things happen over the course of the season — important friendships made, crucial relationships rent asunder, and, of course, the birth of an enduring musical group — but mostly it’s a vibe. And a really engaging vibe, at that.
The Gillilands were not actors — the producers discovered them on TikTok — but both are utterly natural on camera, and any occasional stilted line readings fit this awkward moment in the characters’ lives. The series opens with a scene where a frustrated Tegan punches Sara in the face, leaving a bruise on Sara’s cheek that helps visually differentiate the two in the early going. By the time the bruise fades away, other clues are more apparent — say, that Sara wears a yin-yang charm around her neck while Tegan favors a beaded choker, or that Tegan will at times wear her hair back while Sara’s is always down — along with each of them falling in with a different friend group at school, and having problems separate from the ups and downs of relating to one another.
And High School structures itself so that all the episodes before the season finale are presented through specific points of view, with title cards to clarify whom we’re following for half of each installment. At first, the show is just trading off between Tegan and Sara. But soon we get to see what Simone is dealing with, both as a social worker and in her relationship with Patrick, and Patrick gets his own spotlight, as does Phoebe and, later, Tegan’s new best friend Maya (Amanda Fix). Sometimes, the stories are entirely disconnected from one another, but at others, the show loops back to revisit an earlier scene from a different character’s perspective. By the finale, which is more of a pure ensemble piece, we have a thorough and potent understanding of who everyone is and what’s motivating them, which only makes certain choices hit harder.
The show also pulls off the neat trick of being almost entirely serious without feeling dour. There are some light moments in the interplay between the girls and their friends, or in Simone’s frustration with her intractable children. Mostly, though, High School takes everyone’s feelings deeply to heart. But one of those feelings is the buzz of Tegan and Sara realizing both that they like making their own music and that they’re good at it, and the excitement of that brings some light into even the show’s darkest moments. As Sara puts it at one point, “When I picked up the guitar, it was like I already knew what to do.”
This is a pretty fantastic coming-of-age story, evoking the deep emotions once generated by the likes of My So-Called Life or Pen15, but in a way that is its own thing. Despite the generic title (also borrowed from the memoir), High School is specific in all the best ways.
The first four episodes of High School begin streaming Oct. 14 on Amazon Prime Video’s Freevee platform, with the remaining four episodes releasing one per week. I’ve seen the whole season.