Last month Netflix made my inner teenage self the happiest girl in the world by adding a new Thai show to their collection: Hormones: The Series. Before you roll your eyes or laugh, yes, this is a real show. Yes, it is really called Hormones. And, yes, it is, despite its many flaws, far more dazzlingly fascinating than it sounds.
When Hormones first aired in Thailand in 2013, it captivated the entire nation. Inspired by the popular British show Skins (the Thai entertainment industry likes ripping off British and American TV shows and films; the number of Thai romantic comedies inspired by Love Actually are almost too numerous to count), the show follows the lives of several Thai high-school students and ambitiously tackles adolescent issues that previously had been ignored in mainstream Thai films and soap operas. Despite being heavily criticised for showing teenagers in school uniforms engaging in, among other “unsavoury activities”, drug use and sex, the show proved so popular among young people that it ran for three seasons. The level of analysis that the show prompted on social media and internet message boards was unprecedented.
Already a fan of Skins, I became obsessed. Not only obsessed, but intrigued. Hormones was undeniably groundbreaking for Thailand – a mainstream teen drama that did not look down on teenagers, but attempted to explore their experiences and psyche with genuine empathy and delicacy. I always maintain that we Thais are as subtle as a blunt axe. Listen to our music, watch what is on our TV, go out to dinner with us. We want to be wildly entertained, to be connected, to be hit over the head with an abundance of feelings. And Hormones did just that: hit us over the head with an abundance of feelings – feelings that most Thai teenagers are told by society to suppress or ignore. Many of them felt seen and understood for the first time through the themes presented in the show: family, friendship, romantic love, sexuality, drug use, loneliness, bullying, self-worth.
My favourite Hormones episodes are the ones that take their time savouring small character moments and shedding light on a broader social issue as a result. How young girls view each other in Thai schools and the pain we inflict upon each other are shown through the character of Toei, an independent and individualistic girl who has a hard time getting along with other girls in her class and is much more comfortable hanging out with her male friends. What eventually happens to her — getting beaten up in the bathroom by female upperclassmen after being labelled a ‘slut’ — is sadly not something that only happens on TV. The violence, both emotional and physical, that young Thai girls engage in is deeply nuanced and tragic. This is a topic that is hardly ever talked about or acknowledged: the way we Thai women have internalised misogyny.
Another storyline I enjoy for its ambition is Win’s. A rich, popular and arrogant young man, Win starts the show by challenging his teachers about wearing school uniforms, but ends up adrift in New York, having left Thailand after he has hurt everyone he cares about. Win’s New York episode in the second season is the show’s slowest episode, but arguably the most character-focused. We linger with this young man as he tries to reckon with who he is and what he’s done; he parties; he gets high; he meets a girl; he simply floats through life. The sense of loneliness – that loneliness one gets when living abroad in one’s late teens and early twenties – is so profoundly felt in this episode, it has always made me refer to it as one of the best hours of mainstream television Thailand has ever produced.
Of course, the show has more than its fair share of comical moments. The acting is mostly cringe-worthy and the show’s penchant to add suspense music every time anything remotely controversial happens (drugs, sex, a look of loaded tension between two characters etc.) is comical. There are also certain interesting storylines that were not explored as thoroughly as they could have been. An example of this is the character of Kwan, a rule-abiding ‘good’ girl who discovers that her mother is her father’s mistress. This is a situation that happens a lot in Thailand – one I was very excited for the show to tackle. But after a promising start where Kwan’s sense of self is rocked by the discovery, the conflict is easily resolved in the next episode: Kwan’s anger with her father is quickly swept under the carpet and everyone becomes one big happy family. Class and privilege are also topics that could have been better acknowledged; almost every character is middle- or upper-class.
Re-watching Hormones now on Netflix five years after it first aired, I’m reminded that the show’s beauty remains the potential it holds; you cannot help but admire its ambition despite this not always being matched on screen. To belittle and dismiss it as a simple soap opera or as an insignificant trend is doing it a great disservice. Is the show sometimes ridiculous? Yes, it is nowhere close to being prestige TV, so of course it is ridiculous. But so is being a Thai teenager with all its muddled, vibrant, daunting complexities.
Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer