Unless you are among the chosen few, not many of us look back at our high school years and think, “That was awesome! Let’s do that again!” Adolescent years are awkward, embarrassing and full of wanting your independence but not quite being ready for it.
So on the title alone, Everything Sucks! which premieres today on Netflix, totally gets it. TV shows about high school tend to fall into two categories—the glam and utterly unrealistic worlds Gossip Girl,The O.C. or Beverly Hills 90210 (the granddaddy of them all) or the gritty, so-real-it-hurts worlds of My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks.
Everything Sucks!, about a high school AV Club and Drama Club joining forces, skews completely over to the Freaks and Geeks side of the pendulum with a bit of the stilted acting and treacly scripts of DeGrassi: Pick a generation, lots of the ’90s nostalgia and a quirky Stranger Things group of friends thrown in.
It can be painfully authentic. In the second episode a character eats lunch in the bathroom and the punch-to-the-gut moment took me back in ways I don’t like to think about often. In 1996, freshman Luke (Jahi Winston) has a crush on the principal’s daughter Kate (Peyton Kennedy). But Kate is slowly coming to terms with her sexuality and realizing that she is attracted to other girls. The strongest aspects of the show are rooted in Luke and Kate’s storyline. Winston brings a sweet innocence to the role. Luke is clearly blinded by love—so much so that he creates a “Wonderwall” video to ask her out. There’s something so genuine about Luke’s feelings to Kate. Kennedy is the breakout star on the series. Kate’s uncomfortable in her own skin and her uncomfortableness is palpable. Her pain is hard to watch yet you won’t want to look away.
Parents don’t always fare well on teen shows—they can either be props with no life of their own who mysteriously disappear after they’ve overstayed their welcome or far too much part of the drama, acting more like adolescents themselves. But Everything Sucks! has two great ones. Kate’s dad Ken (Patch Darragh) is the principal of the school. “Can you not talk to me while I’m at school,” Kate asks her dad in the pilot episode. Ken is the kind of dad who wants to connect with his students and his daughter but often misses the mark. “I wouldn’t take it personally. I bet they didn’t even know whose locker it was,” he tells Kate after her locker is painted with the word “dyke” on it. Luke’s mom Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) is a flight attendant raising her son on her own after her husband left. Both parents care deeply about raising their children well.
Where the show falters is the constant name checking of the ’90s. There’s the obligatory discussion about Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” video. The kids drink Zima and listen to music they got from Columbia House on a Discman while peppering their dialogue with phrases like “all that and a bag of chips.” The nostalgic trip down memory lane needs to stop. A show can be set in a certain era without constantly reminding the viewer that it is set in a certain era.
The other big miss is the theater geeks. Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) are prone to breaking out into dramatic, overwrought renditions of Uncle Vanya when they’re not making out. Four episodes in and they remain one-note and that note is cruel. They’re just not enjoyable to watch and they’re the kind of characters that only exist in TV shows. They take up a lot of space on the show and deflate every scene they’re in.
The series is set in Boring, Oregon and every morning the school news cheerfully informs students to “have a boring day!” And, alas, that may be the series biggest fault—it’s rather boring. Not funny enough to be a comedy. Not dramatic enough to be a drama. Netflix has spent a lot of money wooing away producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy from the networks that brought them fame. The online streamer is debuting more shows than critics and certainly viewers can keep up with. But it needs to focus on quality over quantity or viewers will get bored.
All 10 episodes of Everything Sucks! are currently streaming on Netflix.