Netflix’s new coming-of-age comedy-drama Everything Sucks! has a seemingly endless list of things working against it — namely that the show feels like a manufactured rip-off of Stranger Things and Freaks and Geeks — so perhaps it’s better to start with the few encouraging elements that almost save it from itself — and, if you’re squinting hard enough, could be the little miracles that will help the series find itself and become the one it wants and should be.
Don’t hold your breath or anything, because if it takes nearly a full season for the writers to see that light, it’s worrisome. But still, it’s better to be encouraged.
For starters, Everything Sucks! has its heart in the right place. It wants to be good. It wants to be funny and, maybe more importantly, it aims to be earnest and sweet nearly as much as it wants to be hip and cool. It never really becomes what it wants, though, always shooting itself in the foot, but there are hints that something better is deeper inside or perhaps a season away (if people still wait around for those kinds of delayed discoveries).
Best of all, when Everything Sucks! finds, maybe by accident, a moment or scene that gives you pause and hope, they are excellent scenes — fully formed, mature, poignant, presented with confidence. Those rarities make you think, “Wait, we have all of this bath water, couldn’t we hold the baby a little tighter while we toss the rest of it out?”
Maybe it’s important to remember that making TV is hard. Sure, there’s loads of it everywhere on all kinds of platforms and that ubiquity gives a false sense that most of it will be good and that it comes easy — almost like merely settling on a title, casting some actors and spending the pilot money will produce magic.
Look no further than the flaws in Everything Sucks!, a nostalgia-heavy period piece, set in Boring, Oregon — which thankfully actually exists, or it would be the final on-the-nose reference that dooms the series. Anyway, yes, Boring is a place. So, yes, there’s Boring High School, where rural teens come of age and long to do something cooler, like go up to Portland.
But as the comedy opens up, the problems are in neon. First, Everything Sucks! isn’t really funny. It’s heavy on drama and serious moments, or important touchstone moments in kids’ lives, but it’s almost relentlessly not funny. It can be humorous in a light/sweet way, but it hardly tries to have punchlines, even. Having seen seven of the 10 episodes, I can attest that the dramatic intent and the quest to accurately portray awkward teen moments were very evident but the laughs were almost nonexistent — which isn’t a bad thing except that they could really have used some. And it’s a comedy, in theory.
Mostly it’s a slice-of-life series. And Everything Sucks! establishes the setup that Boring is, like many small towns across America, super boring for teenagers. (It’s just not always the name of the town in other series.) And so we are introduced to three freshman geeks who want to be in the AV club at Boring High: Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), Tyler (Quinn Liebling) and McQuaid (Rio Mangini), and the off-putting connections land immediately.
For starters, this part of Everything Sucks! has a distinct, unmistakable Stranger Things whiff that it can never shake. Luke is a lot like Lucas, Tyler is a lot like Dustin (from the hair to the mouth) and McQuaid is like, well, no one from Stranger Things but almost anyone from The Big Bang Theory. Add in Kate (Peyton Kennedy), the girl outsider/interloper to the gang, whom the trio of nerds either has a crush on or wants to keep out of the boys’ club, and so there’s your Eleven/Max female equivalent. The Stranger Things connection doesn’t end there — among many other bits, drama hunk/douche Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) is really just Steve (Joe Keery). It certainly makes you think that Netflix put Everything Sucks! in the Stranger Things blender to make lightning strike again, if that’s physically possible with a blender.
But the immediate effect is that Luke, Tyler and McQuaid seem like characters meant to channel other, more familiar characters from somewhere else on television, even if it all still comes from Netflix and more precisely from one of its most popular shows. And Winston is a fine young actor who probably deserves better. Once the drama and AV clubs are mixed, about four episodes into the season, then you’ve basically got Freaks and Geeks, which wouldn’t be so bad if Everything Sucks! gave that classic a run for its money.
It does not.
And so Everything Sucks! ends up in that weird space where it looks and feels like a nostalgic show either millennials or post-millennials would love, complete with time-specific soundtrack. While there’s no getting around the comparisons because they are so obvious (enough that someone should have red-flagged them, and because it didn’t happen, that certainly lends credence to the idea that they were intentional); it’s still not truly fair to Everything Sucks!, which has a few truly legit moments where it seems buzzworthy and salvageable before relegating itself to something that feels naggingly like something you’ve seen before.
Beyond that, and some problematically anachronistic references, the biggest issue facing Everything Sucks! is the tone and intent. It seems to want to be funny, but when creators and writers Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan (who also directs episodes, as does Ry Russo-Young) focus on the nerdy trio, it just feels like something from Stranger Things, with either Liebling asked to make his Tyler/Dustin character goofy or Mangini asked to make his McQuaid/Big Bang Theory character intellectually dubious. The influences are too obvious, hurting the originality.
As the overbearing sexpot/mean girl Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), there’s not much dialing back. As the drama-club heartthrob counterpart Oliver, Stevenson is asked to be too cool and disaffected, like countless examples before him. It’s only Kate who seems normal, nuanced and genuine, partly because Kennedy plays her so well and partly because her shyness hides a lesbian coming-out story that provides the series’ finest moments (along with Winston really delivering on a multifaceted young freshman in Luke).
Luke’s single mother, Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), is also naturalistic and well-performed. Kate’s single father (and principal of Boring High), Ken (Patch Darragh), is tasked with being a touch too clueless than is believable, a guy who can’t really control what comes out of his mouth. One of the ongoing issues with Everything Sucks! is that 85 percent of the time it chooses to falsely create drama rather than let the coming-of-age story unfold more naturally. It’s like Jones and Mohan don’t trust their instincts.
The series’ decision-making issues, in a nutshell, can be witnessed in one prolonged scene. Kate’s lesbian awakening and Kennedy’s ability to convey her confusion are the best part of the show in the early going. Luke’s crush on her is, of course, going to end badly, but he’s at heart a good kid who can ultimately be a friend to her. After setting up scenes where Kate’s situation is handled too eye-rollingly (Emaline putting Kate’s hand on her breasts and later spray-painting “dyke” on her locker), there’s a scene where Kate’s dad and Luke’s mom have a kind of date. Never mind that they don’t really wonder where their kids are — the grown-ups are sent off to do goofy things and come together. About those kids: Kate, who doesn’t have a license, and Luke, who sweetly bought Tori Amos tickets for his “girlfriend,” decide to drive to Portland to see the show. Without telling anyone. With no clear ability to drive. Again, a forced situation. It’s just a bad choice, dramatically.
However, at the concert in Portland (light years bigger than Boring), Kate sees two young and in-love lesbians being affectionate. The scene is handled extremely well, illustrating that Kate not only finally knows who she is but is validated that there are others in the world like her; they’re just aren’t any in Boring. She’s ready to embrace who she is.
A handful of more moments like that exist in Everything Sucks!, and if they were tenfold it would be a much better series. Right now, the show is playing at copying one or two other series. If those limited moments are any indication, there’s a much better production that Everything Sucks! can become. It just needs to realize that and get there faster, because anything short of being original has been done better elsewhere.
Cast: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Peyton Kennedy, Patch Darragh, Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, Quinn Liebling, Rio Mangini, Sydney Sweeney, Elijah Stevenson
Created by: Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan
Directed by: Michael Mohan and Ry Russo-Young
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)