The opening minutes of Netflix’s new high school comedy Everything Sucks! include The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get” and Blues Traveler’s “Runaround” on the soundtrack, slap bracelets, troll dolls, and debates about both the merits of the Star Wars Special Edition re-releases and whether any of the stories told in Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” are actually ironic. “Ironic” pops up again in the second episode, where a few characters recreate famous moments from that music video and the ones for Oasis’s “Wonderwall” and Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”
In case you hadn’t noticed by now, Everything Sucks! is set in the 1990s. And wants there to be no confusion about that fact.
In that way, the series (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all 10 episodes) starts out following the lead of one of its two main characters: Luke O’Neil (Jahi Winston), freshman in an Oregon town that’s aptly named Boring. Pint-sized, irrepressible, and a lifelong film nerd, he’s convinced that high school will be his opportunity to shine, and goes to extreme and very public lengths to impress his new crush, sophomore and fellow AV Club member Kate Messner (Peyton Kennedy).
Both the show and its leading man can be a bit much at first, with the series’ constant period references and needle drops, and with Luke’s inability to accurately read Kate, who has many good reasons to not want to date him, or to be noticed at all, since she gets enough grief for being the daughter of Boring principal Ken (Patch Darragh).
In time, though, the show turns out to be enormously appealing — not Freaks and Geeks level, but much closer than it has any business being — by instead taking its cues from Kate, who draws praise from a classmate for never trying too hard: “You just exist. You don’t have to be anything for anybody.”
Created by Ben York Jones (who also plays the AV Club supervisor) and Michael Mohan, Everything Sucks! starts out so hyperactive and reference-laden, it’s as if the show itself has drunk an entire six pack of Surge (a ’90s brand that, like Zima, inevitably gets consumed by one of the kids). Everything is loud and confrontational, many of the characters — including Luke’s nerdy buddies McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling), as well as theater club king and queen Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) — come across as the broadest of types, and every situation revolving around Luke’s pursuit of Kate seems designed to generate maximum discomfort. Operating at that level, the show might wear out its welcome quickly, despite the charismatic and contrasting work of Winston (who played the young Ralph Tresvant in last year’s The New Edition Story) and Odd Squad alum Kennedy: he’s preternaturally confident beyond his years and stature, while she’s quiet and still and looks like she might melt into a puddle if anyone stared at her for more than a few seconds. Both leads are terrific.
But once the first few episodes have established the main story threads — Luke’s pursuit of Kate, a feud between the AV and theater kids that Luke attempts to squelch by teaming up to make a ’50s-style sci-fi movie starring Oliver and Emaline, a character contemplating a step out of the closet — Everything Sucks! manages to calm down and, like Kate, just exist. And it’s much more endearing in that mode: a lovable mix of elements from a lot of Netflix’s other recent YA series like Stranger Things, The End of the F***ing World, Big Mouth, and more, that also manages to feel distinctly like its own thing.
Characters who start out seeming like obvious cliches are, with one or two exceptions, gradually given hidden depths. Tyler has a reading disability, which is mostly treated as an understood fact of his life, but which creates tension when he has trouble remembering his lines for the movie. Emaline goes from mean girl to someone with clear and well-articulated vulnerabilities. The coming-out story is presented in a thoughtful and sensitive way, while also turning certain sections of the show into a romantic farce because only a few people know what’s really going on. Kate’s given a very understandable reason for her constant look of terror, and in time proves to be much stronger than she realizes, and much more perceptive, too. In something of a mission statement moment for the show, she scolds Luke — who’s been raised for years by single mom flight attendant Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), while only knowing his estranged father Leroy (Zachary Ray Sherman) as a figure on a series of confessional VHS tapes — for prioritizing his own pain over everyone else’s, forcefully reminding him, “You’re not the only one having a hard time.”
That level of empathy extends to the parents, too. Other high school shows like My So-Called Life and The O.C. have done well by making the adults into complex and appealing figures, but this may be the first where the most sympathetic character is the principal: the creators and Patch Darragh do wonders at showing how widower Ken tries to give Kate, and all the other students, the space they need at this precarious age, even though his own life is crushingly lonely.
Perhaps the season’s most joyous moment involves Ken, having just experienced an unexpected burst of good fortune, bouncing into the house while singing Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” By this point, it’s not just nostalgic pandering, but a moment deeply rooted in character and story. Yes, it’s another one-hit wonder that instantly signifies that decade, but it’s also the song that this guy, at this moment in both history and his own life, would absolutely attempt to rock out to. It’s a treat. So, ultimately, is Everything Sucks!.