If you are looking for hope in bleak times right now, brace yourself for Jahi Di’allo Winston, who plays Luke in Netflix’s new teen dramedy “Everything Sucks.”
“The truth of the matter is, a country where the youth are silent — that country is on its way down. Not even on its way down, it’s dead. So, if you don’t have young people telling their opinions and how they feel, showing their true emotions, you’re not gonna go very far and evolve very much as a society. That’s just what it is,” Winston said recently to IndieWire.
That interview happened just a few weeks before the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, yet another horrific moment of violence for America that has led to a lot of heartbreak and tears — but has also given us a new appreciation for the youth of today, in a politically turbulent time where any potential for change is welcome. After Wednesday night’s CNN town hall, which pitted teens against senators for a two-hour appreciation of what the young are capable of when they’re angry, scared, and motivated, that idea might feel like a bit of a revelation — and also reveal itself as yet another cultural trend in which Netflix might have been ahead of the curve.
“There’s a Lot of Talent in Teens That Hasn’t Been Explored”
When Netflix first began distributing original series in late 2012 and 2013, its fledgling dramas all had a distinctly adult point of view, not to mention explicit sex, violence, and language. It’s a trend that continued, especially in the drama realm, but even Netflix’s comedies have taken advantage of the service’s relaxed standards and practices. There was kids-only stuff being made for Netflix as early as 2013, but nothing that would cross over to larger audiences.
But things changed dramatically following the massive popularity of “Stranger Things” in 2016, as the insanely popular retro sci-fi drama was able to draw in not only adults nostalgic for ’80s-era Stephen King, but a younger audience intrigued by the adventures of a group of kids relatively close to their ages.
At a recent Netflix press event in New York, dedicated to upcoming originals that are rolling out just over the next few months, a large percentage of the shows represented were devoted to stories about and for young people. They ranged in tone, format, cast make-up, time period, and location. But they had one thing in common: Putting young voices first.
“It just shows you how smart Netflix is,” said “Everything Sucks” star Peyton Kennedy, “because the way that society and the world is transitioning right now, we need to hear more people under the age of 18 or around that age to be speaking and to be on television and to be heard.”
“I think why Netflix is controlling the market so well is because they’re not just making content for young kids like us to consume, they’re making it teach a lesson to kids, to help them grow,” added her co-star Rio Mangini. “Not just to capitalize on how much content consume, how much … I feel like they’re really taking that opportunity to help be a part of solving a lot of the problems that not just teens have but also older generations have.”
It’s a feeling that has spread across shows. “There’s a lot of talent in teens that hasn’t been explored because for a long time there were stereotypes. There were the pretty girl and the jock son and that was all there was,” “One Day at a Time” star Isabella Gomez said. “And now there’s more interesting content that allows for younger people to play.”
Gomez, who stars as oldest daughter Elena on the critically acclaimed series (now waiting on a third season renewal), said she appreciates the fact that she doesn’t play a cookie-cutter teenager on the multi-cam sitcom — instead, Elena is smart, awkward, and queer.
“[Co-creator] Mike Royce’s daughter is very much like Elena. She’s so smart and layered and interesting, and she was an inspiration for a lot of Elena’s characteristics,” Gomez said, “And that’s what I loved about Elena from the beginning. Because I go out for a lot of ‘cheerleader’ and ‘pretty girl in the hallway’ [roles] and they don’t say anything interesting. Elena had something to say and she had something to stand for. I have never had to go to the writers and be like, ‘She feels shallow.’ [Elena] never feels shallow.”
Michael Yarish / Netflix
That level of realness matters, because it means that the inner lives of adolescents get the portrayal they deserve. According to Kennedy, “Adults have this fake perception of what teenagers are like. They think, ‘Oh, teenagers don’t have anything to stress about, they just have to go to school and be a kid.’ It’s so much more than that and our show really shows that.”
“We’re Real People”
Gomez was 18 when she was cast as Elena, and in general Netflix’s teen programming features both young teenagers playing their actual age as well as slightly older young adults.
Jason Genao, who stars in the upcoming “On My Block” (created by Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez, and Jeremy Haft) noted that being slightly older than the characters of the show — who are just about to enter high school at the beginning of the show — was an advantage, especially when it came to mistakes that his character Ruby might make that reflect his own life. “I’m excited about the show because people who are actually that age now can see it and say, this is how I fix it, right here in this moment.”
Kennedy of “Everything Sucks” said that “I think it’s so important having teenagers playing teenagers. We’re actually going through what our characters are going through.”
Added Sweeney: “We’re real people.”
The “On My Block” cast noted that while the show was completely scripted, the writers did reach out to make sure everything felt authentic to them. “They were so hands-on, and would really talk to us,” Genao said.
Added co-star Sierra Capri, “In the beginning, I think they wanted to see what we thought and where we were going to take the characters, because it made it more real to everyone.”
“Specifically on things that, you know, they may or may not have had questions about,” said Genao. “Lauren, Eddie and Jeremy did not have a problem saying, what is your experience with this?”
“This Is the Way It Is”
In years past, this generation might have ended up on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel series. But in speaking to these young actors, there was a sense that those networks had become the old guard. Meanwhile, when asked, they mentioned new Netflix releases like “13 Reasons Why,” “American Vandal,” and “The End of the F***ing World” as what they were watching. All of those shows feature high schoolers, but are far from sanitized content for that age bracket.
One of the most fascinating elements of the Netflix teen-focused programming is that the very reason it wasn’t immediately a major factor — Netflix’s lack of an internal standards and practices department, AKA the sort of censorship that keeps Nickelodeon and Disney Channel programming relatively squeaky-clean — is what makes it more relatable to the under-18 set.
“It’s real life,” Kennedy said. “It’s not glamorized. It’s not like you barely see the layers of it. There’s so much to be seen there, ’cause we deal with everything.”
Not all of Netflix’s teen-friendly content is challenging on a sex/violence/language level, as “One Day at a Time” star Justina Machado (who plays Elena’s mother Penelope) pointed out. “Because we want it to be a family show — we want people to be able to watch it together. That’s the beauty of our show,” she said.
However, while “One Day at a Time” might try to be conservative in its approach to some of its more sensitive topics, like LGBTQ issues and immigration, those issues are still tackled. “We would not be able to do half of these things on a network,” Machado said. “We’re not even swearing. It’s just the content that people want to protect people from.”
“Everything Sucks” also digs into many hardcore issues, including race, sexuality, and mental illness — all of which the young cast of the show was proud of the show for depicting. “People underestimate this generation so much, it’s crazy. But this is what they’re doing,” Elijah Stevenson said.
“We can’t just lie and say that there’s no swearing, there’s not gonna be anything like this,” Mangini added. “This is the way it is and Netflix is letting us tell it like that, and that’s really important and brave because without that, kids wouldn’t know what to expect. We’re supposed to be preparing for being older, and our show’s supposed to be about us preparing for when we’re older. So it would just be wrong to teach kids the expectation that that stuff won’t happen in real life.”
Sweeney, who plays a junior student who becomes a source of drama, said that “growing up, I’d watch ‘Gossip Girl’ and be like, ‘Oh wow, I can’t wait for high school.'”
But for her, the truth of what high school is like didn’t live up to the CW. “It wasn’t like that at all. This is real life, this is what high school is like. There’s misfits, there’s problems.”
This might feel like a tangent, but bear with it: The infamous Louis C.K. film “I Love You, Daddy” will likely see the light of day at some point in the future, as C.K. reacquired the rights after its theatrical release was scuttled following the revelations about his sexual misconduct.
Prior to the reveal of the C.K. accusations, however, I did get a chance to see it at a press screening. What was most striking to me wasn’t the Woody Allen-esque overtones or Charlie Day’s mimed masturbation, but a scene relatively late in the film, when Glen (C.K.) and his teenage daughter China (Chloe Grace Moretz) fight over her relationship with a Svengali-esque director (John Malkovich) and her lack of ambition in life. “You gave me nothing!” she screams at him, blaming him for the fact that she doesn’t know what to do, now that she’s about to become a legal adult.
In a movie full of false notes, this is the one that explained so much about poorly developed teenage girls on prestige dramas (like Dana on “Homeland”) and why these new Netflix shows are attracting massive audiences. When teenagers are written by older men, they’re so often ciphers, receptacles for drama as opposed to fully-formed human beings. In the real world, though, there are so many teenagers that are, yes, still sorting out their own identity — but they don’t need to acquire it from outside sources. They may lack experience, but they are still strong, smart, and capable, something we as adults have tragically seen proven by the latest news cycle, but have still found to be an inspiration.
Meanwhile, the teens of today and tomorrow are watching Netflix — to be inspired by stories about themselves.