Like Freaks and Geeks, The Goldbergs, Stranger Things, and a host of others before it, Everything Sucks!, the new Netflix series co-created by Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, is a portrait of adolescence that revels in throwbacks. This time, the era of choice is the mid-1990s — 1996, specifically — and Everything Sucks! makes sure that we never forget it.
The kids in Everything Sucks! brood to music by Tori Amos and Oasis. They play with slap bracelets and use VCRs plugged into non-flat-screen televisions. They dress like No Doubt–era Gwen Stefani and paste magazine pictures of Scott Wolf from Party of Five into collages. When they’re trying to seem really “cool,” they show up to drama club gatherings with a six-pack of Zima. There are times when the show plays like a moving-picture version of one of those BuzzFeed listicles about 25 Things That Only ’90s Kids Understand.
But as tempting as it is to dismiss Everything Sucks! as nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to revisit a time when Beavis and Butt-Head jokes were of the moment, this series slowly proves itself to be something more than that. The ten episodes of Everything Sucks!, all dropping Friday, have more than their share of bugs: dialogue that sounds more scripted than anything actual teenagers would say, then or now; barely developed supporting characters; and a tendency to incorporate music choices that are so on the nose, they are more painful than an infected piercing. (The last episode actually uses “The Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe to illustrate a personal epiphany experienced by — how did you know? — a high-school freshman.)
But it also is so sincere and sensitive in its treatment of its young characters — especially the two main ones, Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and Kate (Peyton Kennedy) — as well as their respective single parents, played by Patch Darragh and Claudine Nako, that it succeeds in making you care deeply about what happens to them. On more than one occasion, Everything Sucks! illustrates the parallel insecurities and joys in the lives of the kids and their adult counterparts in incredibly touching ways, all the more so because the characters don’t realize they’re all going through the same thing. This show has an innate understanding of how the emotions first encountered in childhood still percolate beneath the surface long after we’ve officially grown up.
The first character Everything Sucks! introduces is Luke O’Neil (Winston, who previously co-starred in AMC’s Feed the Beast and portrayed a young Ralph Tresvant in The New Edition Story). Luke is a ninth-grader being raised by a working single mother (Nako) and eager to join the A.V. Club at Boring High School, located in Boring, Oregon. (In an effort to further highlight how tedious and embarrassing high school life can be, the school’s mascot is the Beaver.) Once he becomes part of the A.V. squad, he meets Kate Messner (Kennedy, a former regular on the kids’ show Odd Squad) and immediately develops a crush, not realizing that (1) she’s the daughter of Boring High School principal Ken Messner (Darragh), a widower and glaringly decent man, and (2) she’s also gay.
It’s understandable that Luke is unaware of Kate’s sexual orientation, since she can barely bring herself to say the word “lesbian” out loud. Much of the season focuses on Kate’s struggle to reconcile her feelings with her fears of how she’ll be perceived if she comes out publicly. Luke, on the other hand, seems to think they can somehow be boyfriend and girlfriend while she figures all of this out, which, as you might imagine, causes its own set of problems. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to either of them, their parents start to develop a connection of their own.
O’Neil and Kennedy are crucial to making Everything Sucks! work, and they both rise to the challenge. It helps that they both look the right ages and are so completely natural onscreen. (That ability is heightened by the fact that some of the young actors who play their friends aren’t quite as skilled in this regard.) Kennedy carries herself with so much ingrained self-doubt that there’s rarely a moment when you don’t want to give her a mood-boosting hug. With her deep-set, childlike eyes and an expression that perpetually suggests she wishes she had access to an invisibility cloak, she’s so recognizably adolescent, it makes your heart hurt. O’Neil has to swing between funny and gregarious in certain moments, and completely lost and heartbroken in others, and proves he has the range to do all of that effectively. As a ’90s kid might say, they are all that and a bag of chips. Same goes for Nako and Darragh, who lean into their characters’ respective goofiness and practicality, but never too hard.
Even though that foursome functions as the core of Everything Sucks!, the show, to its detriment, insists on being a broader ensemble in the mode of Freaks and Geeks. It spends a fair amount of time with Luke’s nerdy buddies, McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling), as well as drama-club king Oliver (Elijah Stevenson, channeling the aesthetic of Basketball Diaries–era Leonardo DiCaprio) and queen Emaline (Sydney Sweeney). But for the most part, it never makes these characters seem like more than stock sketches of actual people. (Emaline, who has her own struggle with female identity, is a notable exception.) The series also has a habit of putting its characters into unrealistic, sitcom-style situations that don’t make a lot of sense. Would a high-school principal — especially one as seemingly responsible and mild-mannered as Ken — really decide to smoke weed for the first time on school grounds, with another parent, even if it was after-hours? I feel like that’s a no, but Everything Sucks! goes for it anyway. Its insistence on exploring Luke’s feelings about his estranged father via a bunch of videotapes of his dad talking to the camera is also too hokey to fully accept.
Even with its flaws, Everything Sucks! is worth the journey, proving with each episode that it, and life, really does get better. You can criticize the show for going overboard on the ’90s kitsch, but as I finished this series while simultaneously tracking breaking news about the dreadful school shooting in Florida, it seemed completely understandable to wish we could go back to a time before cell phones and 9/11 and, yes, Columbine. However unintentionally, Everything Sucks! plays like a portrait of the mostly innocent “before” that we took for granted, until the “after” that we’re living in now came along.