The choice of one’s favorite TV shows comes down to more than a preference of genre or an appreciation of certain tones or styles. It’s about who you are, the things you’ve been through, and how that all shapes your view of a series regardless of the creator’s intentions. This is especially true for a nostalgia series like Netflix’s Everything Sucks!, which comes from Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan and focuses on a group of 90s high schoolers. As a child of the 90s who would be around the age of the kids in the show, I acknowledge that I’m hypercritical of a series that wants to tell a story that I feel like I lived, and yet doesn’t quite measure up.
All of that is to say, in TL;DR terms, your mileage may vary when it comes to Everything Sucks! For me, it’s a pale imitation of Freaks and Geeks and even Stranger Things, both of which focus on outsiders of a similar age from the decades prior. Everything Sucks! immediately kicks off with a montage of 90s touchstones and references, along with a cartoonish exaggeration of fashion and stereotypes. One of the best current examples of a nostalgia TV show that doesn’t wear its references on its sleeve is ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, where things like Zoobooks and Tamagotchis and a cultural wave of appreciation for “Wonderwall” are incorporated organically. In other words, a parade of pop culture references is never a necessary hook if you’re looking to tell an authentic coming-of-age story.
Having said that, Netflix has surely paid a significant amount of money for the rights to some classic 90s jams, but it’s not enough to distract from the fact that the foundations of Everything Sucks! are paper-thin. The most interesting story is that of Kate Messner (unsurprisingly the most polished cast member, Peyton Kennedy), a sophomore who tries to stay unnoticed, which is impossible since her father is the principal. Set up early in the series by the unstable drama queen Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), Kate is soon also called out as being a lesbian, something she is only just starting to genuinely think about as she privately explores her sexuality. It’s one reason she seems ok with dating an unbelievably self-confident freshman and burgeoning director, Luke (Jahi Winston), who we’re supposed to like but who mostly comes off, like Emaline, as being exhaustingly over-the-top. Throughout the early episodes, the dialogue is clunky, and Luke’s friends, Tyler (Quinn Liebling) and McQuaid (Rio Mangini), remain undeveloped as the show shifts from a broader high school experience to narrowing its focus to just the love stories of Kate, Luke, and their single parents who seem to want to be something more.
Everything Sucks! wants us to be immediately invested in this quartet without giving us a reason to be, outside of Kate’s journey. Both Luke and Kate’s father Ken (Patch Darragh) are presented as “lovable loser” types when it comes to dating, when actually they’re both pretty aggressive in their pursuit of women they are interested in. For Ken it feels particularly questionable that he would not only immediately ask out the mother one of one of his students, but also the mother of a student he knows is dating his daughter. But hey, it’s the 90s!
Everything Sucks!, which runs in roughly 24-minute episodes, is an easy binge watch. It’s a show that starts out by not requiring much beyond a knowing nod and “remember that thing?” The only story that carries any weight is Kate’s, as Kennedy gives her a hesitation and nuance that actually resonates in a teen-focused story. It’s a stark contrast to Boring High School’s (yes, in Boring, Oregon) resident JD and Veronica, who seem to rule the school despite being drama nerds, and it highlights the show’s uneasy balance of sincerity and parody, especially when it comes to some of the camerawork (which can feel like a mocumentary-style piece with its quick-zooms on reactions).
There are some charming parts of the series, though, which does start to get better as it goes along and turns more of a focus towards Kate. While a traditional network may not have the luxury of taking five or six episodes for a new show to find itself before audiences tune out, in the Netflix model, viewers are much more forgiving. Still it’s hard to recommend, in an era of Peak TV, that people give a show several hours before it gets good. Everything Sucks! is not the sharp 90s teen story I would have hoped for (there are actually still a lot of genuinely great 90s series from the 90s that hold up, like The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Daria), as it honey-coats the high school experience despite its title. There’s a lot more optimism here than “ugh, whatever” 90s apathy. It could do more and be more but — oh snap! Remember snap bracelets?
Rating: ★★- Fair
Everything Sucks! premieres Friday, February 16th on Netflix.