Reviews · TV

‘Everything Sucks!’ is an Awkward, Precious, But Mostly Admirable Teen Drama Series

The Netflix show is worth seeing for breakout star Peyton Kennedy’s portrayal of coming out while coming of age.
Es Unit R
By  · Published on February 15th, 2018

The Netflix show is worth seeing for breakout star Peyton Kennedy’s portrayal of coming out while coming of age.

It’s time for Netflix to feed ’90s nostalgia with the series Everything Sucks!, in which you’ll fondly revisit the time of Blockbuster Video, dial-up internet, and stories of boys falling for girls who turn out to also like girls. The show specifically takes place in the fall of 1996, the same time of the release of Weezer’s Pinkerton album with its likeminded single “Pink Triangle,” and a few months before Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy debuted at Sundance with Ben Affleck pining for a gay Joey Lauren Adams. But both the song and the indie rom-com offer narratives focused solely on the man’s perspective on the situation. What Everything Sucks! does better with 22 years of cultural progress informing its hindsight is elevate the lesbian’s point of view.

The series, which is the creation of filmmaker Michael Mohan (Save the Date) and Like Crazy co-writer Ben York Jones, is a general coming-of-age teen drama for the most part, but it’s most notably a look at the difficulty of coming out in high school at a time when popular entertainment, if not also the real world, saw homosexuality as trendy subject matter even when it portrayed LGBT characters genuinely and respectfully. Everything Sucks! doesn’t really reference too much of that, outside of a mention of The Real World‘s Pedro Zamora and the pointed inclusion of “Pink Triangle” on the soundtrack of one episode. But for those of us who lived through it (or have been watching the far more explicit gay-in-the-’90s dealings of The Assassination of Gianni Versace), there’s an air of that complicated era of LGBT acceptance.

Everything Sucks! starts out seemingly as just another show about nerdy boys attempting to fit in at high school, as we first meet a trio of freshman, Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), Tyler (Quinn Liebling), and McQuaid (Rio Mangini) as they decide to join the AV Club on their first day. The guys are immediately highly reminiscent of the young men of Freaks and Geeks and Stranger Things, two shows that are increasingly evoked as the boys encounter a couple of antagonizing upperclass characters played by Sydney Sweeney and Elijah Stevenson. They’re the mid ’90s version of “freaks”: drama dorks with punk rock pins and goth wardrobes likened in dialogue to the costumes of The Craft.

Fortunately, the show also quickly introduces us to sophomore AV Club cameraperson Kate (Peyton Kennedy), through the crushing gaze of Luke, and by the end of the first episode we’re drawn more to her story and her desires, as she fixes her own gaze and masturbatory interests toward the naked women of a found porn magazine. The plot of Everything Sucks! equally follows both Luke and Kate as they start going out, which she sees as a way to dispel the rumors of her being a “dyke,” and then begin production on a sci-fi film involving all of the AV geeks and drama freaks, the latter evolving from bullies to mentors and objects of affection for the younger students.

In addition to the typical teen relationship stuff, the show also has a less interesting subplot with some of the parents, who aren’t as well-defined for themselves as characters as they are significant in relation to the kids and their issues with having absentee fathers or dead moms. Ultimately, everything comes down to Luke and Kate as both individuals and for their connection to each other. There are a number of narratives and scenes that don’t completely work or feel like add-ons, but the two main characters and their problems always come across as real and important. Both Winston and Kennedy give more grounded and compelling performances than the rest of the cast, too, though Kennedy delivers most of the emotional moments, doing so in a natural, lived-in manner. If the young actress doesn’t just happen to be going through all the same things as Kate is, she’s proving to be an exceptional new talent.

While Everything Sucks! is worth watching for the two leads, and Kennedy in particular, overall the show does feel a bit rough in terms of its production quality and its tone. It’s never serious enough to consider it as a strong drama nor funny enough to appreciate as a comedy, and especially in the first couple episodes it’s difficult to accept the approach to some of the characters and plot and see where it’s headed. We meet Emaline and Oliver (Sweeney and Stevenson) as people who are multifaceted in their awfulness — both of them mean-spirited and pretentious and theatrically exaggerated. The first time we see them hamming it up in the cafeteria as full-of-themselves drama kids turning everything into a Shakespearean spectacle, it’s weird. Then it becomes an amusing shtick, and then the conceit disappears as the series decides to do more with their characters , changing one of them substantially.

Many shows of this sort do take a bit of time to get comfortable with the setting and the characters and their personal goals and stakes, and some of the character developments would be more believable or just better serviced by a traditional television season length rather than just 10 episodes with 20-to-25-minute runtimes. Everything Sucks! does fall into a groove after its awkward beginnings, but there could be more time spent with some of the minor and major characters in order to care about who they all are. There’s also a question of who the target audience is for this series since it feels like a show for preteens, suited for Nickelodeon or Freeform, except for its R-rated dialogue, which should actually sound more realistic coming out of its characters than it does in the context. It’s not necessarily for adults who were teens in the ’90s, as there’s nothing close to the nostalgia bait you find in Stranger Things or, going back further, The Wonder Years, save for its era-defining soundtrack of Tori Amos, Oasis, and The Verve Pipe (“The Freshman” is another tune used a bit too pointedly).

There are plenty who will find appeal in the representation of freaks and geeks, at least. If you appreciate the amateur yet impressive theatrics from the characters of the coming-of-age movies Rushmore and Son of Rambow, you’ll dig the movie production element of Everything Sucks! And the LGBT material is strong, even as it includes a character who isn’t likely gay so much as bi-curious in a way that seems to come from an authentic place of confusion and wonder and insecurity and maybe a dash of implicit fashionability.

As watchable as Everything Sucks! is, the show is far from essential or pressingly binge-worthy, yet it does veer more on the side of the promise that it will itself come of age and grow as it continues (there’s no official certainty of a second season, but the 10th episode does end with a bit of a cliffhanging moment), and you will come away wanting more of Kennedy’s Kate for her potential to be a new, less-melodramatic Angela Chase for the queer crowd and everyone else who needs a normalizing, universally relatable gay protagonist in their entertainment.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.