Three years after Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara released a memoir called “High School” (2019), a limited series by the same name debuted, receiving a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The show, which premiered this October, carries us through Tegan and Sara’s high school experiences. Set against the backdrop of an alternative adolescence in Calgary, Alberta, it tackles the ups and downs of their relationship as twin sisters alongside their journey into music and their queer identities, all while they learn how to be themselves.
The series, streaming on Amazon Freevee, stars twins Railey and Seazynn Gilliland as Tegan and Sara, respectively. Cobie Smulders (Robin from “How I Met Your Mother” fame) plays their mother, Simone. The friends and love interests of the sisters are portrayed by Amanda Fix (Maya), Olivia Rouyre (Phoebe), Esther McGregor (Natalie), and Brianne Tju (Ali).
Though most of the cast is new to acting, you would never know it; especially the Gilliland sisters, who are naturals on screen and almost perfect adolescent versions of Tegan and Sara. Tegan happened to stumble across one of Railey’s TikTok videos while they were in the midst of casting the show. Seazynn told MTV, “[Tegan] immediately thought, ‘This is the younger me.’” The Gilliland sisters bring the memoir to life.
The show is both heart-wrenching and heartwarming, as coming of age — both the experience and the genre — often is. “High School” is uncomfortable, joyous, awkward and endearing — just like high school itself. The show is full of good plot points: friends are made and lost amid the rollercoaster of high school crushes (crushes on, gasp!, girls). Parents are fought with, disrespected and disobeyed while the sisters skip school, experiment with drugs and attend raves. This is all told in a rather artful way: the episodes, with the exception of the finale, are told from alternating points of view. First, just Tegan and Sara, but then also Simone, who is a well-developed character beyond being just a mother, their stepfather Patrick and their friends, Phoebe and Maya. With these alternating points of view, the show frequently shows us the same moments through different characters’ eyes, helping us to understand the events of the show from each of their perspectives. The show is shot craftily, with some scenes both lightning-quick and others grudgingly slow — perhaps a metaphor for the way adolescent life so often feels. But even with all this, “High School” is, above all else, just plain enjoyable to watch.
It's also accurate. With Tegan and Sara as producers on the show, the story, dialogue and characters feel both accurate to their memoir and fitting based on who they are today, making this series an extraordinary well-done adaption from text to screen. Railey embodies Tegan’s protection of her sister and Seazynn plays the quietness of Sara’s secrecy beautifully. Both girls are the picture of mid-nineties cool grunge (the real-life Tegan and Sara were 15 in 1995 when the show is set).
Each of the eight episodes is named after a Tegan and Sara song beginning with “I Bet It Stung” and ending with “The Con.” The sixth episode, the one where Tegan and Sara start writing songs together, is named “Hello, I’m Right Here,” after a song from their album “Hey, I’m Just Like You” (2019), which was released the same year as their memoir and features songs they wrote in high school. The show is full of small, creative touches like this that underscore the care that went into this project.
One of the main themes the show explores is sexuality. “High School” takes Tegan and Sara through the discovery and internalization of their queer identities. Produced, co-written and directed by Clea DuVall, the star of the cult classic lesbian film “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999), who’s responsible for Megan (Natasha Lyonne)’s discovery of her sexuality, the twins’ self-discovery is treated with care and nuance in the show.
There have been few portrayals of queer love between two women teenagers in recent TV as good as this one — Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Izzie (Fivel Stewart) in “Atypical” (2017-21) and Kate (Peyton Kennedy) and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) in “Everything Sucks!” (2018) are the only ones that come close. Tegan and Sara are iconic in the LGBTQ+ music scene and to see this aspect of their story played out on screen is extremely special — not to mention beneficial for on-screen representation. It will almost certainly become lesbian media canon.
You don’t have to be a Tegan and Sara fan to appreciate “High School.” The show is about their journey to become musicians, of course, but more than that, it’s about how two teenagers grappled their ways through high school and came of age. It’s relatable and enjoyable, no matter who you are.