Review | Everything Sucks! (2018)
Netflix Original Everything Sucks! follows nerdy teenaged outsiders in Boring, Oregon, as they deal with the stresses of growing up in the VHS era. The show was created by Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, the ten-episode first season aired on February 16, 2018. Starring Peyton Kennedy and Jahi Di’Allo Winston.
The most obvious comparison is the least useful. But I get it. I mean, how can a nostalgic teen drama about a group of dorky outsiders like Everything Sucks! not be compared to Netflix’s own Stranger Things?
Luckily, Netflix Original Everything Sucks! is nothing like Stranger Things. There are similarities, sure. They both revolve around kids who’re terrified of girls but borderline obsessed with the one who’s willing to talk to them. But no monsters, secret government labs, or alternate dimensions. In Boring, Oregon, high school is terrifying enough.
Our nominal heroes are the dweebs of the A/V Club. Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is the only child of an air hostess single parent (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) who often has no choice but to leave him to entertain himself. He does so mostly by watching old VHS tapes made by his now-absent father, Leroy (Zachary Ray Sherman), and by lusting over Kate Messner (Peyton Kennedy), another member of the Club who just so happens to be the daughter of the school’s principle (Patch Darragh).
Luke has friends – his bestie is an absurdly buttoned-up cynic with slicked-back hair who’s known only as McQuaid (Rio Mangini). But the A/V Club are maligned; outsiders who’re more concerned with keeping their heads buried in the burgeoning technology of the 90s. This, at least initially, brings them into conflict with the school’s drama club, the leaders of which frequently act out their various social concerns in off-the-cuff Shakespearean performances. This, needless to say, is insufferable.
But Everything Sucks! knows that. It knows that a town called “Boring” is perhaps too on-the-nose as a representation of small town ennui, even though to the best of my knowledge it’s a real place. (It’s also, hilariously, east of Happy Valley, and twinned with a city in Scotland called “Dull”.) This is a smart, self-aware comedy drama that takes these broad archetypes and, over the course of ten 20-minute episodes, allows them to develop into well-rounded, fully-fledged characters that you come to care about and admire.
Well, most of them.
It’s true that Everything Sucks! limits its focus to Luke and Kate, and their on-again-off-again parents, both of whom are struggling with the loss of their partners and how to raise their children alone. This narrow scope sometimes works to the show’s detriment, especially when we’re asked to suddenly care about peripheral characters, or to buy into the effect their actions have on our heroes, when the show doesn’t really spare the time or space to properly develop and contextualise them.
Still, Luke, Kate and their parents are such interesting characters, and so believably and enthusiastically portrayed by their respective actors, that it’s difficult to mind their company. It probably says more about me that I identified more with the adults than the kids. But I certainly recalled that impotent feeling of loving someone who doesn’t love you back; here Kate, the object of Luke’s undying affection, is a lesbian who lusts over Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), the queen bee of the drama club.
The Netflix show handles heavy topics like sexuality, bullying, and abusive relationships with sensitivity, but also an unflinching authenticity. Characters are often shown to be dealing with their problems by not actually dealing with them at all – at least not immediately, or in a way that’s totally obvious. Which can be frustrating, in a show like this. You want characters you like to find happiness and comfort, to come to terms with who they are, but life doesn’t work that way, and neither does Everything Sucks!
More so than any recent show that I can recall, here’s one that is perfectly content to have its heroes behave in ways that are against their self-interest; that are profoundly irritating and off-putting. To see Luke browbeat and ridicule his friends because he’s upset is, I think, reminiscent of your own friends who grew up too fast or not at all. But his childish, self-defeating outbursts are deeply rooted in relatable personal trauma – as are those of, say, his mother, who’d sacrifice her own happiness to preserve his, or Kate’s, who’d risk Luke’s feelings to avoid having to confront her own.
This focus on putting the kids through the emotional wringer doesn’t make Everything Sucks! less funny – if anything it allows the humour to be sharper, more taboo. The writing – which leverages 90s nostalgia and knowing pop-culture name-checks without overly relying on them – understands the dual purposes of comedy as sword and shield, offense and defence. It’s funny because it rings true. And if it isn’t quite as laugh-out-loud hysterical as you expected it to be, that’s only because it’s more affecting and stingingly accurate than you’d perhaps like.
None of this would matter if it weren’t for some fantastic performances, particularly from a spectacular Peyton Kennedy and charming Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Kate and Luke. But the highlight is Patch Darragh as Kate’s father, who starts out as a kind of slapstick do-gooder but eventually comes to completely – sometimes heartbreakingly – embody the show’s themes of fighting for your own happiness. Everyone is good, but some characters are underserved by the script, starting out as thin archetypes and mostly staying that way other than to set up a punchline or a cheap gotcha.
It hurts and hinders, I suspect, that the entire season clocks in barely longer than three hours. On the one hand it’s pacey, and never has time to spare to get hung up on plot points or character slumps that would otherwise bog things down. But it’s also so lean that certain secondary characters and sub-plots feel incidental, particularly one involving Emaline’s toxic relationship, which essentially writes itself out of existence to set up a (mostly) happy ending.
That not every lingering character dynamic and plot point gets neatly resolved is hardly a bad thing – that, along with a cliffhanger ending, sets up a second season that I sincerely hope gets commissioned. But in some cases there’s a feeling that what has been left to fester has actually been forgotten about, or neglected due to time and space constraints. It’s far from a deal-breaker, but noticeable nonetheless.
Overall, though, Netflix Original Everything Sucks! is a heartwarming, refreshingly authentic peek into the lives of boys and girls and men and women who feel less like characters in a TV show than people you’ve met or perhaps been at some point in your life. Undeniably flawed but just as undeniably quite brilliant, this is laidback television that’ll have you sitting up straight. And maybe wiping away a tear or two.
Everything in Boring, Oregon might suck, but this new series certainly doesn’t.