Netflix’s new high school comedy drama Everything Sucks! has charm, but is far from perfect. Less than a minute into the opening episode and we’ve had glimpses of, among other things, a paper fortune teller, a Troll doll and a snap bracelet, plus a conversation about how good George Lucas’ reworked Star Wars trilogy is going to be. We’re unmistakably in the 1990s.
Specifically, it’s 1996 at Boring High School in Boring, Oregan – a town where tourists take pictures of the amusing welcome sign but rarely venture further. Having just started their first year of high school, misfit friends Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling) join the AV Club, where they meet awkward Kate (Peyton Kennedy). Luke is instantly smitten, but soon gets warned that he’s playing with fire because Kate is the principal’s daughter. Combined with an onslaught of 90 references, including a done-to-death joke about Alanis Morissette’s Isn’t It Ironic, this setup of ‘boy has crush on unattainable girl’ doesn’t feel particularly inspired.
Towards the end of Episode 1, however, things get more interesting, as we find out that Kate suspects she is gay. From this point on, the show is just as much Kate’s story as it is Luke’s, if not more so, and all the better for it.
Rather than feeding us a narrative of Luke pursuing Kate and eventually winning her over, as a high school TV show or movie actually from the 90s would have no doubt done, Everything Sucks! makes it clear that Luke’s efforts are doomed from the start. As a result, it manages to offer a twist on a conventional story, and of all the characters, it is Kate’s journey that proves to be the most compelling.
Everything Sucks! makes another good move post-Episode 1 by easing a little off the breaks with its barrage of 90s references. What’s more, it doesn’t just look back at the decade with rose-tinted glasses, highlighting that if Kate were to come out, she would likely be ostracised by her peers. When a rumour starts that Kate might be gay, she ends up with cruel graffiti on her locker and overhears girls in the bathroom speculating whether she has AIDS.
After a rocky start, which will possibly cause some less patient viewers to switch off, the show becomes more focused, and Episode 3 sees the main plot kick in, thanks to an incident with a fire alarm. The AV Club joins forces with Drama Club, led by the obnoxious Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) and his girlfriend, Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), to create an ambitious, low-budget sci-fi movie. The rest of the season follows these two very different groups working together, all while Luke pines after Kate and Kate develops feelings for Emaline.
Episode 3 also features the first meeting between Kate’s widowed dad, Ken, and Luke’s single mother, Sherry, who bond and tentatively embark on a relationship. Their storyline is sweet and heart-warming throughout, anchored by endearing performances from Patch Darragh and Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako. Ken, aka. Principal Messner, is a particularly likeable character, with a scene where he joyfully dances around to Deep Blue Something’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s providing one of the season’s most memorable moments.
A key strength of Everything Sucks! lies in the casting of its two child leads. Peyton Kennedy delivers a standout, nuanced performance as Kate, coming of age while also quietly coming to terms with her sexuality. Meanwhile, as Luke, Jahi Di’Allo Winston copes well with material that requires him to be often stroppy and selfish while not being totally hateable.
The other child actors have less to work with – in particular, Rio Mangini, who gets embarrassingly clichéd nerd dialogue as McQuaid and looks like a popular kid who’s dressed up as a nerd for Halloween. Towards the end of the season, there is an attempt to give McQuaid some character development, which falls flat because he has been written as such a one-dimensional stereotype until that point. Likewise, extroverted Emaline undergoes a transformation during the last few episodes that doesn’t seem entirely believable.
With each of its 10 episodes being 20-30 minutes long, Everything Sucks! is an easy, breezy watch. The 90s setting might feel a bit in-your-face to begin with, but it gives rise to a fun soundtrack – with Oasis’ Wonderwall and Ace of Base’s It’s a Beautiful Life featuring prominently – and the constant ‘remember this!’ references thankfully die down over time.
Despite being a comedy drama that isn’t particularly comedic or dramatic, Everything Sucks! does turn out to be sweet and touching – largely thanks to the performances of its child and adult leads. If only its supporting characters were more fleshed out and original, it would make for more enjoyable, memorable viewing. The finale ends in a way that sets things up for a second season, and if this becomes a reality, here’s hoping some of the flaws will get ironed out the next time around.
Everything Sucks! is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.