“Everything Sucks!” has a very simple problem that could — but likely won’t — be remedied should future seasons come to pass: It’s too obsessed with the ’90s. Filled with slap bracelets and Zima, “Beavis and Butthead” impressions and “Pulp Fiction” speeches, a soundtrack cribbed from “Now That’s What I Call Music” Vols. 33 – 37 and baggy clothes any grunge kid would’ve been proud to wear to a Nirvana concert, the Netflix original series manufactures too many moments solely to reference a decade only recently being mined for ‘member berries.
While that can work for plenty of period pieces — just look how well “Stranger Things” utilized its ’80s aesthetic — here it’s at the expense of a heartfelt story in need of more earnest attention. All the “as ifs” and “Run Forrest, run!”‘s spoil a unique and stirring coming out story (not to mention a compelling performance from Peyton Kennedy) — a story that takes a while to get going in the first place. By the time “Everything Sucks!” gets around to its valuable point, you’ve probably already taken the title at face value. But not everything sucks in the latest underdeveloped Netflix series. You just gotta have faith.
The new 10-episode series wastes zero time citing its setting: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get” blasts out before anything even pops up on screen, and here are just a handful of ’90s touchstones that are introduced before any of the actual characters: hacky sacks, paper fortune tellers, troll dolls, slap bracelets, the “new” “Star Wars” movies, and the sincere use of the word “phat.” Only after viewers are firmly aware of the time period, awash with memories of their own youth, do we meet Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and his friends, McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling).
The new freshmen walk into school and become immediately enamored with The A.V. Club, but Luke’s adolescent interests don’t end there: He falls hard — harder than Michelle fell off her horse — for Kate Messner (Kennedy), an older student and camera operator for the school’s news broadcast. The two strike up a friendship while Lucas plans the best way to ask her out, and the scene seems to be set perfectly for more period-appropriate coming-of-age references: “Clueless” and “The Sandlot” feel right around the corner.
But then a glimmer of (Chicago) hope shines through these overly familiar clouds: Kate doesn’t seem interested in Luke. It’s not that he’s younger than her or shorter than her or just the wrong guy for her — it’s that he’s a guy. During the first season, Kate slowly comes to grips with her homosexuality, and almost every aspect of her journey is told with the elegance and compassion largely lacking from the rest of the series. “Everything Sucks!” isn’t just a hackneyed coming-of-age story; it’s a terrific coming out story.
To say there’s not enough of the latter would be an understatement. Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan’s scripts work overtime to build a larger story around Kate. There’s a movie to be made; Luke has to get over himself a lot; his friends get half-baked arcs where they supposably come out of their shells. But very few of these efforts are worth it, and “Everything Sucks!” often falls back on its “Hey, remember the ’90s?” trappings to try to make up for a lack of consistent depth. (No episode is longer than 27 minutes, and most hover around 22 or 23, which is something more Netflix comedies should adhere to, but also indicates a lack of overall substance in this case.)
Once you get about halfway through the season, “Everything Sucks!” dials in; it starts trusting its story about Kate, the narrative gets the go-ahead to “giddy up!” and things really start clicking. Kennedy’s quiet, anxious, and excitable turn makes Kate identifiable in her childlike curiosity, timidity, and wonder. Many of Kennedy and Kate’s best scenes are dialogue-free, as the actress conveys so much of what her character is going through with fervent glances and patient, processing stares. She is present all the time (even if her less dynamic co-stars aren’t always ready to match her).
By the end of its brief season, viewers will likely want to forgive “Everything Sucks!” its early follies. There are tremendous scenes, if not whole episodes, that send the show out on a high. But it’s as easy to argue that more missteps will be made in a hypothetical second season as it is to say the show grew out of them. How Jones and Mohan set up Season 2 is far too slight, ending on a cliffhanger that’s earned, but not all that interesting, and a missed opportunity that was obviously only held to save something for later. Perhaps if it wrapped up Kate’s arc, we could look back on Season 1 as fondly as the series remembers the ’90s. Instead, it’s a relief the pop culture onslaught is over. Have mercy.
“Everything Sucks!” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.