EW critic Darren Franich's take on Netflix's new series 'Everything Sucks!'
Credit: Scott Patrick Green/Netflix

Everything Sucks! starts as ’90s pastiche: the snap bracelets, the Troll Dolls, a conversation about the lack of irony in Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic.” The time is 1996, the place is high school, though maybe more accurate to write “1996” and “high school.”

Freshman Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) has a crush on sophomore Kate (Peyton Kennedy). They’re both in AV Club; she’s taller than him and is the principal’s daughter. He’s a teen film buff from the last age when a teen could only care about movies. He owns a Mallrats poster, but also a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari T-shirt. He curates his videotape collection the way the next century’s kids curate their digital lives.

Luke’s not subtle. Everything Sucks! isn’t either, at the start. He finds out that Kate likes “Wonderwall” (because she is a human), so he films a shot-by-shot remake of the Oasis video, then plays it on the school’s TV network—and then asks her out, with the whole student body watching. When she says yes, everyone cheers—even Principal Dad!—and the soundtrack lights up with “Love is Everywhere” by Cicero, one of those keyboard-dance tracks that sounds like a mournful video game about fighting robots with Tae Bo punches.

All ten episodes of Everything Sucks! stream on Netflix this Friday. The first few feel off, like a colorful xerox over-faxed into monochrome fuzz. Creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan were teenagers in the ’90s, like me. But that doesn’t make any of us experts, and I sense a lack of specificity here. Deep Blue Something, Ace Ventura, “It makes Species look like Fern Gully!” (There are two early references to Star Wars, but 1996 was the last time you could go months without talking about Star Wars.)

That said: If any adult back then told me That ’70s Show wasn’t accurate, I would’ve said they oughtn’t have a cow, man. More damaging is the feeling that high school itself is a little synthetic. It’s not just a boring small town: it’s Boring, Oregon, and the morning announcements conclude with a chipper suggestion to “Have a Boring Day!” We’re in spoofville, and you feel you’re watching a less-nasty Not Another Teen Movie. Even that punctuation mark in Everything Sucks! feels off, internet-y exuberance chronotriggered back to the golden age of passive disinterest. Winston’s an endearing screen presence, but you’ve seen this story before, the sweetheart nerd chasing the girl, Ethan Embry and Jennifer Love Hewitt. What’s new?

Pleasant surprise: Everything Sucks!has one of the best new characters on television. Kate’s experiencing her own personal struggles, and I guess this might be an episode 1 spoiler, but it’s the whole ballgame. There’s a scene in the pilot episode where she’s laying on her bed, listening to “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” wearing a Tori Amos T-shirt, Jonathan Taylor Thomas looking down from her wall. She pulls a stolen porno rag out of her Jansport backpack, something called Steam, a naked-lady magazine proudly advertising the “Country Babes” therein. (Ah, the glory days of print!) The volume goes up on Oasis, Kate turns the pages, and you realize you’re watching a sexual awakening.

The ’90s saw the occasional coming-of-age lesbian teen narrative, like But I’m a Cheerleader and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Taken seriously, it was material for indie films (and later, cultishly beloved TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Once and Again.) In what you could call the mainstream, there was mostly stuff like the excessive girl-on-girl kiss from Cruel Intentions, a gloriously cheap stunt so historic that Riverdale parodied it by the fourth commercial break. So the joy of Everything Sucks! is how Kate’s journey defenestrates whatever conventional idea of teen romance Luke is chasing—and complicates the ’90s parody into something more profound.

You start to feel something a little insidious in Luke’s lovesick puppy act. And you’re aware that, circa 1996, Kate has no obvious path to follow. Every teenager feels like a freak, but Kate’s navigating real fear in her self-realization. “Lesbo much?” another girl ask-insults Kate when she catches her looking in the locker room, and then the gossip swirls. Kennedy’s performance is wonderful, introverted, and yearning. She’s cool, confused, smart but un-precocious. There’s a moment midway through the season when Kate goes to a Tori Amos concert. She notices two women kissing on the balcony; the camera lingers in close-up on her face. She smiles, realizing for maybe the first time that this world was built for her, too.

Whenever the show shifts attention to Kate, it becomes much better. You start to feel the two-hour movie this ten-episode season could’ve been, a common feeling with a lot of TV today. But there are other delights. The nominal big plot of the season focuses on an alliance between the AV Club and the Drama crew. They work together to make a science-fiction movie, fully of janky special effects. You expect some testy cross-cliquery as the two groups collide, but past a certain point, everyone in Everything gets along. So there’s a vanilla quality to some of the teen interactions. Even the shocking, period-specific casual homophobia recedes. I know why it recedes—the show’s aiming for light fun—but there is a slight cheapening effect, a feeling that you’re watching the nicest possible version of what ’90s teens were like. Imagine Daria remade with Disney kids

But some of those kids kids are all right! The drama-club stars are Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney.) He’s the dreamboat with great hair and a bad attitude imported from young Ethan Hawke’s most annoyingly sexy performances. And Sweeney (soon to be in The Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects) is a real revelation, half-swagger and half-desperation. Meanwhile, in the land of adults, Kate’s dad (Patch Darragh) and Luke’s mom (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) embark on a quiet little single-parent flirtation. They have no real problems at all, but there’s a sweetness in their interactions, a sense of two grown-ups rediscovering themselves as their kids are just starting the self-discovery process.

Kennedy and Sweeney locate a sensitive naturalism in their performances. Stevenson’s over the top in the right way. Winston’s the Platonic Ideal of a nice guy finishing last, but Luke’s arc gets more complicated, and he’s not always the hero in his own story. Some of the other young performers veer cartoonish. That cartoonishness extends to some of the musical cues: There are few bigger Weezer fans than me, and even I shuddered when the show found the most on-the-nose way to use “Pink Triangle.” But Everything Sucks! gets trickier as it goes. It takes Luke’s development as a filmmaker seriously: There’s a whole episode about bluescreens, greenscreens, and the art of shooting on location. The prickly edges of high school drama are sanded down, but the creators are conjuring up a cheerful feeling of all-encompassing kindness: Not a vibe I would’ve enjoyed in 1996, but kindness didn’t seem endangered then.

And there’s a moment with a ring pop that just killed me, killed me. And there’s a thing with Duran Duran, but I can’t say more. One character starts off the season wearing baggy plaid and winds up rocking a midriff-baring crop top, and that wasn’t how the ’90s were, but that was how the ’90s were. After her revelation at the Tori Amos concert, Kate says “Maybe there’s a future where I don’t have to be a freak,” and, holy hell, that’s where we live on the best days. Everything Sucks! can’t always decide whether it’s snarky or sincere, but I want it to run for at least three more years, to the end of high school and the end of the decade. I can already hear the last song: Blink-182, “Going Away to College.” B