Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
As Gen X settles comfortably into middle age, mainstream pop culture has slowly turned its eye toward the younger end of our generational cohort’s formative years: the bizarre, incredible time that was the 1990s. An era known for its incredible music, ubiquitous love of flannel, and bizarre entertainment fads (troll dolls!), those who found themselves in high school during this period have the dubious honor of coming of age while straddling a rapidly changing culture. As our world began to switch from a purely analog society to an increasingly digital one, Gen X’s youngest members suddenly had access to more technology than ever before, from VHS tapes to pagers and painfully slow dial-up internet that could only be accessed over your home phone line. (No wonder a lot of us turned out to be weirdos, is what I’m saying.) But that didn’t necessarily make it any easier to figure out who we were—or who we wanted to become.
Although plenty of our modern-day media seems ready to (finally) wrestle with everything this time period got wrong, like its misogynistic attitudes toward famous women or the uncomfortable ways its news media fetishized female trauma, there are a vastly fewer number of shows that manage to accurately represent the particularly chaotic dichotomy that was coming of age in the mid to late 1990s in a way that is honest without resorting to being mocking or cruel. Which is part of the reason the short-lived 2018 Netflix comedy Everything Sucks! felt like such a revelation. Yes, the show unabashedly embraces every idiosyncrasy that came to define ‘90s culture in a way that can feel annoying if you’re not as excited by snap bracelets and Oasis ballads as those of us who lived through them all the first time. But there truly isn’t another series in recent memory that gets the heart of this particular slice of Gen-X—the latchkey Carter Administration kids—so darn right, from its genuinely heartfelt optimism to its quirky self-sufficiency, constant introspection, and determination to do things our own way.
Set in the rural town of Boring, Oregon, Everything Sucks! centers on a group of the sort of misfit teens who feel like they’d fit right in on Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life. (This is not in any way a criticism, to be clear.) There’s shy, nerdy Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and his besties McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling), a trio of AV Club dorks who are looking forward to George Lucas’s re-digitized Star Wars trilogy (sorry in advance about that, guys) and think girls will flock to them once they make a successful independent film. Introspective principal’s daughter Kate (Peyton Kennedy) is obsessed with Tori Amos and slowly coming to terms with the idea that she might like girls more than boys, even as Luke tries to convince her to go out with him. And over-the-top drama kids Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) and Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) have the sort of messy on-again-off-again relationship that plays out in multiple public acts over lunch breaks and in parking lots—but it’s actually Kate who just might be Emaline’s future.
None of these kids exactly fit the traditionally popular stereotypes of teen television, which is precisely why the deft way the show weaves them all into each other’s orbits and finds common ground between them works so well. (Though I have to question in what universe the drama club would ever have been the most popular kids at school!) The fact that these young actors actually feel as though they genuinely belong in a high school setting rather than managing the Starbucks down the street helps the show establish itself as a refreshingly youthful contrast to our pop culture’s increasingly cynical view of teenage life. (Let me put it this way: Euphoria, it is not.) And rather than transposing adult problems onto teen characters the way so many series of our current moment love to do, its stories are generally focused on relatable everyday situations, like fitting in at school, navigating the tension of having a crush on a friend, questioning your sexuality, or discovering the power of music as a transformative and transportive lifeline during a time period when little else in your life feels as though it speaks to who you really are.
It’s unfortunate but worthwhile to note that Everything Sucks!’s best subplot—Kate’s slow realization and acceptance of the fact that she is gay—isn’t something that likely could have actually played out on a 1990s sitcom. Back then, LGBT characters, if they existed on television at all, were present to serve as a sort of cultural oddity at best, or the butt of a variety of off-color jokes at worst. Realistic stories of coming out were the purview of afterschool specials on the rare occasions they were told, and we certainly didn’t see arcs like Luke’s, who not only eventually comes to understand that his crush doesn’t like him like that, but embraces his role as a true ally and advocate for her happiness.
The lives of girls like Kate might have been vastly different had they been able to see stories like theirs represented in the pop culture of the time, and the open-hearted, honest way Everything Sucks! allows her understanding of her own identity to unfold is genuinely beautiful to watch. And the series’ best sequence, in which Kate essentially comes out to herself at a Tori Amos concert while “Silent All These Years” crescendos around her, is a perfect blend of drama and emotional catharsis as she decides she can no longer stay silent about the truth of who she is.
Everything Sucks! may not have secret speakeasies underneath the most popular town hangout (Riverdale), supernatural monsters at the local mall (Stranger Things), or murders happening during study hall (One of Us is Lying), but what it does have is a lot of genuine, uncynical heart, of precisely the sort this genre could use a lot more of right now. This is a show that not only cares—about its characters, the world they live in, and the better one they’re trying to build together—but wants us, as viewers, to do the same. And though the hilariously sweet comedy sadly only got a single season on Netflix, that’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.
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Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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