Netflix has made headlines of late for its forays into big-budget original genre movies, most notably with last December’s critically reviled (but, according to the company, extremely popular) Bright, and then again this past Super Bowl Sunday with the equally maligned The Cloverfield Paradox. Those moves further underline Netflix’s designs to become a movie-industry power player. However, that’s not the streaming service’s only grand ambition—as evidenced by its latest episodic effort.
Looking to entice those who previously binge-watched its Fuller House and 13 Reasons Why, Everything Sucks!, premiering Friday, Feb. 16, is additional proof of Netflix’s aim to be a one-stop entertainment shop for the younger end of the coveted 18-49 demographic.
A teen dramedy cut in a Freaks and Geeks mold, Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan’s series—running ten installments, each approximately twenty minutes long—is a story about boys and girls navigating the ins and outs of high school in a town whose name says everything you need to know about its reputation: Boring, Oregon. Often less laugh-out-loud funny than aw-shucks sweet, the show delivers comedy and pathos of a breezy, easygoing sort. And while it has some blind spots, its action is layered with life lessons that are as resonant as is the show’s nominal calling card—namely, that it’s set in 1996.
The decision to take a period-piece route was likely born from both Jones and Mohan’s own experiences, as well as a strategic interest in roping older viewers into visiting Boring High’s crowded hallways. That aim should be a relatively successful one, since the show is nothing if not spot-on with its era-specific details. From VHS tapes with the recording tabs broken off, to baggy jeans and floppy checkered shirts, to references to Showgirls and Point Break, to a Netflix title card fashioned after the one used for My So-Called Life, Everything Sucks! is steeped in its particular time and place, and those who grew up during the decade will find regular references at which to chuckle. Plus, its authentic atmosphere is aided by dialogue rife with now-archaic catchphrases (“all that and a bag of chips”) and a soundtrack that must have cost the streaming giant a pretty penny, what with its hit tracks from (among others) Tori Amos, the Spin Doctors, The Offspring, Nada Surf, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Ace of Base and Deep Blue Something.
If hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” sends a nostalgic tingle up your spine, then Everything Sucks! will no doubt be right up your alley. And while Jones and Mohan’s constant ‘90s shout-outs are sometimes a bit too front-and-center, there’s fortunately much more to their show than just throwback goofiness intended to congratulate viewers for remembering the crap they watched and listened to during their youth.
The focus here is Luke O’Neil (Jahi Winston), a high school freshmen who lives with his flight attendant mom Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), and who, like his best friends—uptight, unsmiling McQuaid (Rio Mangini), and slow, squeaky-voiced Tyler (Quinn Liebling)—is someone we might commonly refer to as a nerd. Upon beginning ninth grade, Luke, McQuaid and Tyler join the A.V. Club, where Luke immediately swoons for Kate Messner (Peyton Kennedy), a sophomore camera operator for the school’s morning program. Though asking out an older woman might strike many 14-year-olds as a daunting task, Luke is amazingly confident, even after discovering that Kate is the daughter of Principal Ken (Patch Darragh), a good-natured and awkward widower. As Luke soon learns, however, Kate’s dad isn’t the biggest hurdle to a potential romance between the two: Kate’s budding lesbianism is.
That Luke is African-American and Kate is Caucasian would seem, circa 1996, like something someone might remark upon in some capacity. Yet Everything Sucks! chooses to pretend that interracial romances were so common back then that they were treated as the status quo—a decision that comes across as progressive wish-fulfillment, and mildly disingenuous. When, mid-season, Ken and Sherri begin their own mixed relationship to the eyelash-batting of precisely no one, it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the sense that the show is operating with history-rewriting blinders on, which is all the more frustrating considering how attuned it otherwise is to the emotional confusion of adolescence—and given that it doesn’t shy away from the ostracizing ridicule faced by Kate because of her homosexuality.
As Luke attempts to woo Kate, Everything Sucks! expands its scope to concentrate on a collection of other kids, including sophomore drama king and queen Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney)—the latter a brash sexpot who intimidates everyone, most of all the smitten Kate—as well as bible camp-attending Leslie (Abi Brittle).
Over a few bottles of Zima, these classmates eventually band together to make a sci-fi movie under the stewardship of would-be auteur Luke, and their project, as well as the tangled interpersonal dilemmas it begets, affords Jones and Mohan opportunities to create absurd situations that speak to the painful teenage process of forming an identity. That Luke and Kate are similarly grappling with (and bonded by) issues involving parental abandonment also grounds the action in a very real type of teenage turmoil (over what to think, feel and want, both from others and themselves), just as their moviemaking endeavor conveys the way art helps people confront—and process—such inner upheaval.
Thanks to a young-adult cast that’s rarely off-key (except intentionally, in the case of the amusing Liebling), as well as strong direction from Mohan and Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), the series strikes a lively, lighthearted tone, even as it sensitively plumbs its protagonists’ longing, loneliness, and desire for acceptance and companionship. And in the knotty bond shared by Luke and Kate, Everything Sucks! pinpoints one of the most important facets of growing up: learning to see beyond yourself in order to recognize, and accept, someone else’s perspective. Far more than its bevy of ‘90s-isms, it’s the show’s ability to dramatize that vital message with both earnestness and humor that makes one hope it’ll find an audience—and, consequently, return for a sophomore year.