Thursday, March 8, 2018

Don't Look Back In Anger: Netflix’s Everything Sucks!

Jahi Di'Allo Winston and Peyton Kennedy in Everything Sucks!, now streaming on Netflix.

Luke: . . . you're out of focus.
Kate: I know. I'm trying to fix that.
                   – from Episode 1 of Everything Sucks!
Television shows and films about how horrible high school can be are plentiful – just as plentiful as shows set in the 1980s and ‘90s seem to be currently. And so, recognizing none of the actors in the main cast and knowing nothing at all about the show’s creators and main writers (Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan), I showed up to Netflix’s new coming-of-age dramedy Everything Sucks! with low, and pointedly narrow, expectations – anticipating at best a brief dip into a new, and ultimately forgettable, guilty pleasure (along the lines of MTV’s clever, but scatological  and sophomoric, The Hard Times of RJ Berger), or a mildly amusing nostalgia project designed to flatter a coveted Millennial demographic. As a result, I was genuinely unprepared for how poignant, sincere, and generally affecting the series is.

In its ten-episode first season, Everything Sucks! resists most if not all of the temptations of the teen genre. Never glib, melodramatic, cynical, or sentimental, it has the weight of reality without hyperbole, and is regularly heartfelt without any hint of the saccharine. It litters its mid-‘90s setting with all the requisite markers, setting it firmly in a place and a time, but doesn’t lean on them for mere nostalgic effect. Everything Sucks! – like Netflix’s ‘80s-set Stranger Things – is also bolstered by an extraordinary ensemble of largely age-appropriate cast members, with almost all playing their own ages (the eldest young actor is a wizened 20 years old, with the majority 14 or 15), and the story they inhabit is powerfully small and real – and rightly so, because of course, when you are a teenager, everything is inconsequential and world-destroying at the same time.

It’s late 1996, and we follow Luke (14-year-old Jahi Di'Allo Winston) and his friends McQuaid (Rio Mangini, 15) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling, 14) into the halls of Boring High (yes, the town is named Boring)  en route to join the A/V Club, where they meet Kate (Toronto native Peyton Kennedy, 14), sophomore and the daughter of the school’s principal. The central story of the first season follows the complicated and shifting relationship between the wallflower Kate and the seemingly fearless new freshman, Luke. The main plot, though, will sound immediately familiar: four young, geeky outsiders become enemies, then allies, and eventually friends with older, more socially powerful drama club students – and by the end of it, everyone learns something about themselves. Where Everything Sucks! quickly distinguishes itself, however, is in the sensitivity and compassion it brings to all of its characters – young and old.

The virtues of the series mirror the virtues – and vices – of its many characters, landing with the same awkward grace of its own resident filmmaker and central character, Luke. Unlike two of my favourite similarly-set television series (the neo-horror Buffy the Vampire Slayer and neo-noir Veronica Mars), what I found immediately refreshing is that Everything Sucks! tells its story without borrowing from other genres; it just is where it is – in a high school, in a small town – and, committed as it is to revealing adolescent life in all its awkwardness and indescribable highs and lows, that’s all it needs to be. Everything Sucks! may have no end of predecessors but the new series works on its own because (like Luke) it seems not to care what anyone else thinks. With tender voice and lo-fi ambitions, it’s a soft sell: instead of melodrama it has heart (multiple, sometimes conflicting hearts) and is happily divorced from the soap-opera rhythms of most teen-focused series (from the original 90210 to the so-over-the-top-it-comes-out-the-other-side Riverdale). The students of Boring High aren't broken. They aren’t villains or victims, or playing metaphors for broad adult types: they’re teenagers, each struggling (some together, but more often alone) to make their way through that familiar time of life when everything seems to sucks in endlessly diverse and perfectly everyday ways – whether it’s those endless, awkward conversations with your parents; or the girl you like who doesn’t  like you back; or the boy you like but doesn’t seem to even know you exist; or when you feel like a freak, or when, more commonly . . . you feel like nothing at all.

Sydney Sweeney and Peyton Kennedy in Everything Sucks!

And though the story is set 20 years ago, Everything Sucks! offers a poignantly contemporary look backward, rather than a nineties-era portrayal of the period, This is most apparent in the patience and matter-of-factness of Kate’s struggles with her sexuality and identity. Though she, along with Luke and their two single parents, are steadfastly the show’s main characters, Kate’s own journey is neither self-consciously at the show’s centre nor sitting at the margins. Kate is shy and insecure, but her struggles – like those of Luke and the other young teens – aren’t two-dimensional. She is struggling with the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death, her status as the principal’s daughter, and of course with confusing feelings and desires that further isolate her from seemingly everyone her own age. But she is also short-sighted, self-involved, and prone to moodiness: in short, she is a teenage girl.

It is worth saying that being regularly reminded of Freaks and Geeks – most especially in its mismatched grouping of our quartet of A/V geeks with the more socially dominate drama kids – never works against Everything Sucks! Like the now-classic Judd Apatow series (and unlike its Netflix sibling Stranger Things, which for all its strengths is more homage to the ‘80s through cultural artifacts than a testament to lives lived), Everything Sucks! isn’t a meta-reflection on its era. It is littered with signposts – popular music (you will never get Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life” out of your head – apologies in advance), Blockbuster Video, Beavis and Butt-Head, Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, debates over Alanis Morissette’s weak understanding of irony, etc. – but the stories are invariably about the characters, and those elements show up as organic parts of the material that make up their lives. (See, for example, the early scene of Kate blushingly explaining the title of Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes album to Luke in one of their first conversations, or the surprising power of her spontaneous destruction of the myriad Jonathan Taylor Thomas posters that cover her bedroom walls.)

The two main adult characters – Luke’s mom Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) and Kate’s dad Ken (Patch Darragh) – both emerge as just as fully developed as the young ensemble. They are two single parents who come together because of their children, and the short scenes of their developing relationship are small masterpieces ripe with quiet impact – whether it’s an unremarkable dinner at a chain Italian restaurant, or the sharing of some contraband marijuana in the school parking lot.

Everything Sucks! is sensitive not only to the more poignant and timely aspects – like Kate’s negotiation of her emerging sexuality in a too-small town – but also for the less headline-ready stories, like Luke’s or Emaline’s (Sydney Sweeney, The Handmaid’s Tale). Though Emaline’s evolution from Mean Girl and self-described “psycho chick” to viable love interest may come off as too fast – and far too narratively convenient – I am already prepared and trusting that its second season will demonstrate just how unfinished her story is. Some of the young cast are given more thankless roles than others, but if they do pale, it’s mainly because of the other characters with whom they share screen time. Elijah Stevenson as Oliver, a scenery-chewing, trenchcoat-wearing teen narcissist, is comparatively cartoonish, standing in for every Drama Club diva who’s ever gone to a small-town public high school. Others, like too-smart-for-his-own-good McQuaid, can’t help calling to mind more developed characters from other shows (e.g., Sheldon). But, all the same, I am shocked at how real the character of near-invisible Tyler – cracking voice, Ace Ventura impersonations and all – became for me, despite his seeming two-dimensionality – testament perhaps to Quinn Liebling’s manic, desperate portrayal of the young man.

Everything Sucks! is about how lonely it can be just to be alive, and how difficult it can be to look up and realize that you are surrounded by similarly lonely people. This is very much a show about Millennials, that still-young generation that we slightly older folk are hoping will come together and do something about the cracks that seem to be appearing in the world. When you watch these characters come together and then bounce apart like magnets flipped from one side to the other, it is a reminder of  just how difficult it can be – at any age, in any era – to realize that, as Kate says, “You’re not the only one having a hard time.”

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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