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Everything Sucks! Review: An Earnest Coming-Of-Age Story Mired In Nostalgia

You have to hand it to Everything Sucks!, Netflix’s new 90s-set coming-of-age dramedy from creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan: it is unafraid to be completely rapt with its sense of nostalgia. With its obvious musical cues featuring everything from Spacehog to Oasis, its bottles of Frutopia, baggy flannel shirts, and copious VHS tapes all displayed prominently, the series unabashedly enters into the crowded streaming arena with what it presumes is its best foot forward. But that appreciation for a bygone era soon bleeds into direct homage, as the series basically wears its elevator pitch on its sleeve. “What if Freaks and Geeks, but set in the 90s and also not funny?”. Meanwhile, the use of a semi-ostracized boys club being intruded upon by a girl, bullies with great hair, and the prescribed importance of a school’s AV Club suggest a note from Netflix that said: “What if also these familiar elements from Stranger Things?”

As such, Everything Sucks!, feels like a an amalgam of several different shows you seen before, deliberately so. That extreme familiarity is exacerbated by its reliance on ‘90s references early on, that, depending on when you were born will either hit you with all the “feels” or leave you wondering how people ever lived like this. The problem is, like some shows set in a specific time period, it does very little to justify being set then, other than to make use of the period to hook viewers and have them partake in what initially feels like manufactured wistful remembrance.

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Thankfully, after the first few episodes, the sense of nostalgia is turned down a notch and, like its characters, Everything Sucks! begins to figure out what it is — or at least what it wants to be. It’s essentially a journey of self-discovery, one that’s predicated primarily on the sweet-naturedness of series leads Petyon Kennedy and Jahi Winston. The two play high school students Kate Messner and Luke O’Neil, whose coming-of-age story subverts the usual trappings of such narratives in a pleasantly affecting way by also becoming a coming out story for Kate. And to the show’s credit, it doesn’t waste time getting there. Although Everything Sucks! subscribes to the same “Eh, you’ll probably just watch the next one” binge-watch structure, it isn’t as compelled to delay things like, say, Netflix’s various Marvel superhero dramas.

Amidst all the pointed references to Tori Amos, Columbia House, and Showgirls, there’s an effort to use nostalgia as a means to a different, more interesting and introspective end. On occasion, Everything Sucks! thoughtfully zeroes in on what it’s like to be on the cusp of teenagerdom, and how rapidly things vacillate from the buoyancy of new experiences to the crushing weight of overwhelming self-consciousness. Jones and Mohan lean heavily on the former, both as a way to keep the narrative marching forward and as a way to create conflict between Luke and his two best friends/fellow AV Club members, Tyler (Quinn Liebling) and McQuaid (Rio Mangini), who aren’t given storylines of their own and instead hang out in the periphery of Luke’s relationship with Kate.

That’s a recurring problem for Everything Sucks!, which has a difficult time defining its supporting characters as anything beyond types. McQuaid is relegated to a stereotypical brainiac, with a familiar tendency toward blunt negativity. Tyler fairs a little better initially when it’s revealed he struggles with reading, but that doesn’t come up again in the first six episodes, and the character is instead defined more by his eccentric personality and unsubtle preoccupation with sex. And although the series zigs by making drama geeks Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) and Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) the school bullies, instead of the typical jock, the characters themselves don’t offer much distinction to truly validate the deviation.

The thinness of the supporting characters is perhaps most glaring in Luke and Kate’s parents, Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) and Ken (Patch Darragh). Much like Stranger Things, there’s a suspiciously convenient amount of half-assed under-parenting going on that Everything Sucks! attempts to explain by making Ken a sweet natured, perpetually uncool single father and Sherry an overworked flight attendant, which, with his father out of the picture, means Luke is flying solo most of the time. But so as to avoid the comical absenteeism of Mike Wheeler's parents, Jones and Mohan put Ken and Sherry on a path to potential romance that begins with toilet papering the house of a female colleague who rebuffed Ken after a brief summertime affair.

The show’s early attempts to eschew comedy for earnestness begin to pay off near the latter half of the season, when greater attention is paid to Kate’s understanding of her sexuality and the unexpected compassion  she receives from Luke, despite his romantic feelings toward her. This is the moment it begins to feel as though the creators finally have a grasp on what the series is and what it could be, elevating it beyond a simple ‘90s nostalgia factory. But that realization comes so late the merits of Everything Sucks! remain nebulous. As such, viewers are left with a series that could possibly become something much better should another season be green-lit. Until then, it will just have to be content being another streaming show that feels a lot like everything that’s come before. Everything Sucks! definitely doesn’t suck, but it's only occasionally pretty good.

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Everything Sucks! season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Everything Sucks! Review: An Earnest Coming-Of-Age Story Mired In Nostalgia