High School is a coming-of-age show like no other. Adapted from Tegan and Sara‘s affecting memoir chronicling their teenage years in Calgary, Canada, it’s an engrossing slow-burn that hones in on the unique challenges faced by the Quin sisters as they grow up. When it begins, Sara (Seazynn Gilliland) seems stifled by the way her identity is inexorably tied to that of her identical twin Tegan (Railey Gilliland). And as the series progresses, each sister gets to grips with her queerness in very different ways.
But creator Clea DuVall, who is well known for her acting roles in Better Call Saul, The Handmaid’s Tale and classic LGBTQ movie But I’m a Cheerleader, was also keen for the show to capture something universal about the “internal” aspect of adolescent life. “Even if you’re not relating to Tegan and Sara, there’s someone on the show that you can connect with,” she says. “There’s no judgement here: it’s not a cynical show; it’s a show that really embraces the messiness of humanity. I hope that when people watch it, they really feel seen.”
On top of this, it’s a show set in the mid-’90s, which means no social media, no smartphones and no Spotify. Because of this, part of DuVall’s job description was teaching younger cast members how to operate an oldfangled contraption called a cassette player. “Oh, that was pretty horrifying for me!” she says with a laugh. Here, we get the inside story of how High School was made, with contributions from DuVall, lead actors Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, plus Tegan and Sara themselves.
It’s authentic to Tegan and Sara’s book
DuVall, a longtime friend of the Quins, says that “first and foremost” she wanted to make a show they felt “fully comfortable with”. “Their story is so personal to them, obviously, and they spent so much time working on this book that’s so beautiful,” she says. But at the same time, DuVall knew the TV adaptation would have to be able to stand on its own legs.
“A television show demands a different structure from a book – things just happen differently,” she explains. “Finding a way to really capture the essence of the book in all its beauty and bring it into the television show [format] was really my biggest challenge.”
For this reason, the TV show broadly follows the format of the book in the way it alternates between Tegan and Sara’s individual perspectives. But in addition to this, it delves deeper into how their friends and family may have been feeling at the time – How I Met Your Mother‘s Cobie Smulders is especially excellent as their mum. “One of the most important things was expanding the world [captured in the book] and finding the best way to give the supporting characters really full, three-dimensional lives,” Duvall says.
Having Tegan and Sara on board was vital
When the project was taking shape, DuVall says she and co-showrunner Laura Kittrell would send executive producers Tegan and Sara “every draft of the outline or script”. That way, they could “sign off and kind of give their OK about how their story was being portrayed”. Once shooting started, those scripts were pretty much locked in, but having Sara on set every day still proved incredibly useful.
“Because we all lived in the same apartment building during filming, Sara would come over to our room and help me a lot with playing guitar,” recalls Railey Gilliland. Was it sometimes strange hanging out with the people you were portraying? “Not really,” says Seazynn. “They weren’t saying, ‘Oh, you need to do this a certain way’ or ‘you need to embody me a certain way’. I kind of got to know the character from the script itself, and then got to know them [as people].”
Sara says she treated the whole process a bit like school: “I’m here to be educated on how to make a TV show.” And both Quins always felt confident that their input would be gratefully received. “We were pretty much included in anything we wanted to be included in,” Tegan says. “Unless we had marched onto set and said, like, ‘I’m gonna cast myself as the lead,’ I think everything we did was going to be welcomed.”
The music is spot on
Episode one begins with the grungey thrash of Hole‘s ‘She Walks On Me’ and a shot of Björk being interviewed on TV. Immediately we’re back in the mid-’90s. As you’d expect, Tegan and Sara were very hands-on when it came to making the show’s soundtrack. At one point, they even compiled a hyper-specific playlist comprising nothing but Calgary-based bands from the era.
“But ultimately, it had to come down to what Clea wants,” Tegan says. “A lot of the choices [she made] I’m really stoked by because they’re not songs that we chose at the beginning. But I think they give, you know, a potentially wider spectrum of what was being listened to at that time.”
Over the years, Tegan and Sara have often licensed their own songs to movies and TV shows, so the syncing process proved to be a real eye-opener. “It was very, very cool to be on the other side seeing what it actually costs to get a Nirvana song!” Tegan says. “We wrote a lot of letters and begged and pleaded to get certain songs and we’re very happy with how the soundtrack turned out.”
It reflects the queer experience authentically
Though LGBTQ characters have become more prevalent in TV shows and movies, they’re often allowed just one love interest. Sara was determined for High School to blow open this trope. “As queer people, we’re kind of told we’re lucky if we can find one person gay enough to experiment with us at a young age,” she says. “But that was not my experience at all, so I wanted High School to capture how I felt this omnipresent possibility of connection with people when I was growing up.”
At the same time, Sara wanted to show that teenage connections aren’t always long-lasting or even wholly romantic. “I think the show does an incredible job of depicting what friendship feels like as a teenager: how it can feel like love, ” she says. “Like, there’s a longing and a pining and this feeling of wanting to be around that person all the time. I think this show will really remind people of that time in your life when your friends are everything to you.”
‘High School’ is streaming now on Amazon Freevee