You’re going to want to grab a Hot Pocket and bottle of Orbitz for this one. Or maybe not, depending on your opinion of Nineties nostalgia overload.
Netflix’s latest addition to its stable of teen dramas is Everything Sucks! from Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan. The show centers on a small group of high school students in Boring, Oregon who either just joined the nerdy A.V. Club or practice lunchroom sololoquies with the (very) dramatic theater department. After butting heads, the two groups decide to join creative forces. Within this larger conflict are smaller, more personal ones, which is where the show plays more to its few strengths.
Arbitrarily, the show is set squarely in 1996 if for no other ostensible reason than to have its characters blurt obvious 90’s phrases (“All that and a bag of chips!”), to see them consuming those oh-so-90’s artifacts like Jolt Cola and Surge, or to relish in its constant 90’s soundtrack. (No Nirvana was harmed in the making of this show.) There’s even a mention of Bill Clinton, if you can imagine. The setting does little to propel the arc of any of the characters except perhaps for Kate Messner, the principal’s daughter, who is slowly figuring out her own gay sexuality, a bit more taboo in 1996 than today.
The show’s missteps go beyond a vague sense of place. It is at its most problematic when attempting to establish its tone. It’s as if your favorite afternoon Nickelodeon show tried its best to grow up by using stronger language, uncovering its sexuality, and having the silly principal try weed for the first time, yet still maintaining that very 90’s way of zooming in for each important, precious moment. As a whole, it can’t decide if it wants to be goofy or sincere. (That isn’t to say that a television show can’t be both. Just note all the recent dramadies on television that have a balance; Crashing comes immediately to mind). It just doesn’t hit either of those notes very well.
The story beats are fairly obvious and these young actors, while entertaining, aren’t on par with those of, say, Stranger Things. It’s a little tough to watch as the stiff and dorky McQuaid (Rio Mangini) finally lets loose a belly laugh: it’s just too affected, even if Mangini manages a few serious moments much better. The worst of the lot is the one-note, sour puss Oliver (Elijah Stevenson), who does little but brood without a hint of irony.
What keeps the show afloat, however, are the characters, no matter how poorly written some of their dialogue and antics can be. With the exception of Oliver, there’s a certain honesty to each of kids that makes you return to the next episode. Tyler, played by Quinn Liebling, is probably the most joyous to have onscreen (he is this show’s analog of the Dustin character from Stranger Things and is almost as sweet). The aforementioned Kate has some wonderful, heartbreaking moments usually with the oft-petulant Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, mostly great) that are well played, especially a particularly poignant scene on the bridge where she reveals the truth about her mother towards the end of the series.
And it doesn’t hurt that each takes less than 24 minutes to watch.
But I still wanted more from this show.
Everything Sucks! doesn’t suck at all, but it does take a tired swing at teen dramaedy in a vague, 1990’s setting. It just doesn’t have the strength to land the punch.
Note: Nine of ten episodes were watched for this review.