I’m not sure if you noticed, but “Everything Sucks!” takes place in the ’90s. I know, I know. It’s quite a revelation, given how subtly the new Netflix comedy incorporates its period appropriate props and dialogue. But among the many, many casual and clunky references to an emerging narrative source of millennial nostalgia, two nods to the decade that gave us the Macarena and Crystal Pepsi are actually, you know, important.
[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Everything Sucks!” Season 1, including the ending.]
And they both occur around the same time: Near the end of the first season, the AV and Drama clubs of Boring High School take an unexpected field trip to Dominguez Rocks, a canyon nestled northwest of Santa Clarita, CA. (Sadly, there’s no synergistic Drew Barrymore cameo.) They’re on a mission to complete their school movie, but the key references have nothing to do with blue aliens and low-budget special effects.
What first stands out is Blockbuster. Just seeing the giant blue Blockbuster sign is jarring enough to evoke a response from viewers old enough to remember the defunct rental chain, but the real payoff comes when we learn why the duo is dropping in: On a side-trip to Los Angeles, Kate (Peyton Kennedy) convinces Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) to commandeer the school bus and shoot down to Hollywood. It’s only an hour away, and they are shooting a movie, after all.
But Kate has ulterior motives: She found Luke’s dad, Leroy (Zachary Ray Sherman) who abandoned his family to pursue a career in the movie industry, and she’s taking Luke to see him. See him he does, but it’s not what he’s looking for. Wearing a distinctive blue polo and unpacking tapes from the return bin, Luke’s dad isn’t living the dreams he talked about on the VHS tapes back in Boring. He’s barely connected to “the biz,” which becomes painfully clear as Luke goes inside to discover what his dad’s life is like.
And here’s where the use of Blockbuster becomes more than a gimmick. There are movie references galore — including a “Sgt. Bilko” sign in the window and an entire section of “Waterworld” tapes right in front of Luke — but those are in the background. They don’t steal focus or feel forced in for the nostalgia. The one moment that could feel that way is when Leroy advises a customer on what to rent, but instead, that moment expertly serves the emotion of the scene.
Leroy is so desperate to feel like his opinion matters — that he’s connected to the industry he dreams of — he needs to recommend a “good vampire flick” instead of whatever the average customer picked out. He needs to feel like an expert, like an authority, even if it’s just of this little rental shop in Hollywood. So when he pushes “From Dusk Till Dawn” on the customer, it’s not just one more way for the show to mine nostalgia from the ’90s; it’s showing Luke what his father is doing instead of being with his family. Leroy traded in his son to become… this?
The devastating realization is beautifully conveyed, as Luke flees the shop without even saying hello to his dad. But another ’90s icon is used for the episode’s broader arc: Ace of Base. The band’s song “Beautiful Life” is the students’ chosen track to kick off their journey, and everyone seems somewhat pleased by its inclusion; everyone, that is, except Mr. Stargrove (played by series co-creator Ben York Jones). Mr. Stargrove isn’t too happy to be on the trip that he said “would never happen” to begin with, so a song touting a “it’s a beautiful life” over and over again isn’t an accurate reflection on his world. (Nor, do we imagine, is Ace of Base reflective of his musical taste.)
But true enthusiasm for the song isn’t seen until Luke and Kate hijack the bus and head to Hollywood. The two friends, enlivened by their adventure, belt out the chorus with reckless abandon. This may be the happiest they’ve ever been: Their friendship solidified, their movie in the can, and their dreams of Hollywood being realized in actuality. It’s a beautiful life, indeed.
That is, until Luke’s Blockbuster non-confrontation. Everything flips in that moment, and he turns on Kate, screaming at her to stay out of his life. His life is suddenly ugly, but it’s not just the kids’ perspectives that have changed. On the way back, Mr. Stargrove is jubilant. He hooked up with the park ranger, which seems to have made the whole trip worthwhile. So it makes sense that he’s bopping happily along to Ace of Base… just as it makes sense for Luke to walk up to the front, rip the tape out, and chuck it out the window.
Now, granted, the Ace of Base metaphor is pretty blunt. Once it clicks (likely during the bus trip into Hollywood), there’s no deeper significance than the initial cue. But it’s important to take note that it’s not randomly inserted, like so many other ’90s moments in the series. It serves a purpose beyond window dressing, just like Blockbuster. If “Everything Sucks!” handled all its period references this way, the 10 episodes would be infinitely more palatable and rewarding overall. As it stands, at least there’s hope for Season 2. Things are headed in the right direction, and perhaps Season 2 can have a longer, more beautiful life.