“Listen, you can call me whatever you want. You don’t have to like me, but I like you, and … I want to do good stuff. So I hope you let me help you.” — Apropos of nothing at all, Del’s student council election speech (“Chapter Five: Del”)
The last time I took to the Paste TV trenches to write at any length about Wayne, it was January of 2019. The first season of Shawn Simmons’ knuckle-bruising teen dramedy had just dropped on YouTube Premium, and between it, Sex Education, and Deadly Class (RIP), it was pretty obvious something Hughesian was on pop culture’s collective mind. Hell, even grown-ish made its first major promo campaign a full Breakfast Club jam.
At the time, a mini-boom like this made a kind of epitaphic sense: 2019 marked a decade, after all, since John Hughes had died; the timing was ripe for some choice nostalgia. And yet, given how utterly and indeed pummeling the loudest of these updates ended up being—Netflix’s batshit zombie comedy Daybreak, which would debut and in short order be canceled later that fall, absolutely included—a more complicated explanation seemed in order. My guess? That modern American culture had so thoroughly rotted, the TV-making adults who grew up with The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were ready to drag us all head-first into the vicarious catharsis of the next generation’s fictional teens blowing our bullshit to kingdom come.
Well, it’s nearly two years later. Whatever Hughesian boom there might have been is over, YouTube Premium is effectively (if not technically) out of the scripted content game, and we’re still (at least) 69,619,556 votes short of burning out the toxically selfish rot at the heart of our national experiment.
One thing we do still have, though? A Wayne.
Better yet, thanks to an eleventh-hour streaming rights bid from Prime Video, a larger audience than ever is about to have a Wayne. Even better still, should that audience fall in love with Wayne the same way Del, Orlando, Principal Cole, and most especially I have, we’ve even got a chance we might have a Wayne for years to come.
So, yes—this is a review of a show that’s nearly two years old. And yes, we’ve all got a lot distracting us, this weekend of all weekends. But I am telling you: If there are better ways to channel your end-of-2020 anxiety than taking a Cameron Frye cannonball straight into Wayne’s exquisite first season, I genuinely can’t think of them.
That established: What, the f***, is a Wayne?
In short, a Wayne is a kid from Brockton, Massachusetts, played by Sing Street’s Mark McKenna, who has spent his short, lonely life never catching one single fucking break. His mom abandoned him when he was five; his abusive brother disappeared to the Marines; his dad is dying from cancer he got from a shit job he couldn’t escape. He’s got a bone-deep sense of justice, a complete inability to tell even the whitest of lies, and a heart ten sizes too big. But his school is failing him, his neighborhood alternately hates and fears him, and the only model he’s found for doing anything like good in such a brutal world is Conan the Barbarian. There are glimmers of a could-be support system fluttering around the edges of his life—his dad’s hospice nurse (Lisa Berry); his sometimes buddy, Orlando (Joshua J. Williams); his sad-sack high school principal (Mike O’Malley)—but from the depths of the emotional black hole Wayne’s spent the last 11 years of his life living in, those are glimmers he can’t quite see.
What he can see is Del (Ciara Bravo), the cute neighborhood girl whose home life is arguably worse than his, suddenly showing up at his door hustling stolen Girl Scout cookies. What he can also see: A postcard photo of the gold ‘79 Trans Am his dad had apparently always wanted to pass down to him, postmarked from Ocala, Florida, where it’s been parked ever since Wayne’s mom and her dick boyfriend stole it and took off, never to be seen again. Add one dad who’s abusive (Del’s), one dad who dies (Wayne’s), one rusty old motorbike (also Wayne’s), and three generations’ worth of teen tropes callbacks (“One time, Wayne punched me in the face… it was not awesome”), and you’ve got a Dirty Harry/teen dream/road trip story for the ages.
If this sounds like a bunch of things that might add up to one big bummer, you’re not wrong. Or, not entirely. A significant chunk of Wayne really is just brutal. There’s the visceral violence, sure—I mean, Wayne bites Dean Winters’ nose off in the first episode (sorry, spoiler! but also: you’re welcome for the warning), and it only gets bloodier from there. Even more distressing, though, is how many miserable people Wayne and Del keep finding themselves inextricably tied up with—and not just miserable people in general, but miserable adults. Because at the end of the day, that’s what Wayne is: A story about all the ways in which adults fail kids, and all the ways in which kids, in turn, learn to fail each other. In cinematic extremis, sure—no spoilers, but let’s just say there’s an exotic pet farm whose predators are key to one late-breaking plot twist, and also a parking lot fight scene set to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”—but not so much in extremis that it’s hard to see the misery of our own current moment reflected a bit too crisply for comfort, or to fault Wayne when he decides the only answer to such widespread moral failure is to pick up his hammer and swing.
And yet, for all that the violence in Wayne’s and Del’s lives can feel unrelenting, Wayne is, as a whole, a genuine delight to watch. It’s funny. It’s weird. It’s sweet. It’s heartbreaking. It’s so deeply assured of its singular, wild voice, so thoroughly willing to commit to the bit, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a TV show at all. This isn’t to say it plays at reality—there’s a realist streak to the writing, yes, but the production choices are pure comedy. And anyway, it’s so much sharper than reality could ever hope to be. Sharp writing, sharp directing, and most importantly, sharp acting. McKenna and Bravo stand out as the series’ co-leads, each turning in performances that can shift on a dime from devastatingly tender to ferociously funny to just plain ferocious (and all while maintaining the specific physicality of the Brockton accent), but really, there’s not a weak link in the entire cast. On the adult side of things, O’Malley and Winters are perfect foils for each other, as the light/dark father figures unwittingly racing each other to catch the kids as they zip down the coast, while Michaela Watkins and Abigail Spencer make an equally solid showing as Wayne’s and Del’s differently disappointing moms. On the teen side, meanwhile, Williams shines as Orlando, the best friend Wayne doesn’t actually know he has, while Odessa A’zion (Grand Army) and Zoé De Grand Maison (Orphan Black) make electrifying cameos as Georgian girlfriends who adopt Del and Wayne as their illicit high school buddies just long enough to get them dressed up for a real school dance. (Sample dialogue, from the girls’ grand entrance on the big night: “We look so fuckin’ elegant!” / “For real, we look like some top-shelf Helen Mirrens over here.”)
It’s not just the most obvious stuff the series excels in, either. Like, for all that Wayne almost literally punches its audience in the face with its adults suck story, there’s so much texture woven, with an almost shocking degree of subtlety, into the background of every scene. Take Del’s dad’s whole deal, going from being the cartoonishly outsized villain from the moment his boot slams into Wayne’s head in the first episode, to being the responsible (if curmudgeonly) parent who has to pick up the slack from his depressive, opioid-addicted wife in the flashback story we finally get to see in “Chapter Five: Del.” You want subtle narrative texture, look no further than the scene where he has to tell Del her mom is gone, slouching exhaustedly in a ratty lawn chair, covered in sweat and dirt, silently gripping her mom’s gold necklace. A grave-sized patch of freshly shoveled dirt is out of focus over his right shoulder, an unopened inflatable family splash pool (he’d previously promised he’d never buy them) is out of focus over his left. Pure, grim poetry, right there. Not enough to forgive what hell he rains down on Wayne when he finally catches up to them in the last, cliffhanger-building moments of the season finale, but enough to remind you that too many adults in this world are miserable because they, too, never caught a single fucking break. We’re all just weathering the impossible; how we come out of it, that’s up to us.
To write any more about where Wayne and Del get by the end of the season would be to spoil a journey truly worth taking, so I’ll cut myself off here. But on the note of taking personal responsibility for how we treat other people, well—if there’s a lesson we can take from Wayne that might clarify the distinctly un-Hughesian moment we find ourselves in now, maybe it’s this, from Stephen Kearin’s Sergeant Geller, after he also finally catches up to Wayne in the season finale and makes his bid to get through to the kid before it’s too late: “Everything you do, you’ve done out of love. And last I checked, love is civilization. You’re not the barbarian you imagine yourself to be, young man.”
Love is civilization. Man. Talk about brutal.
The first season of Wayne is now streaming on Prime Video. If we’re all very lucky, maybe someday we will get a Season 2.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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