One of the most enduring cultural contributions of the Baby Boomers is the serio-comic generational-coming-of-age flick. (Whether that's a positive contribution or a cosmic banana peel is a discussion for another time and bottle of Jack Daniels.) Since American Graffiti's teenage archetypes drove off into the night toward Vietnam, the civil rights movement and K-tel hell, every generation, sub-generation and random demo (Hey, remember Generation Jones? The Bay City Rollers will never die!) has gotten a movie or TV series about its teenage years. From The Lords of Flatbush to The Wonder Years, from Pretty in Pink to Freaks and Geeks, getting older never gets old.
What's interesting about this is that—except for the records/cassettes/CDs/mp3s they listened to—there doesn't to be a great deal of difference in the generations. Nerds, jocks, bullies, cool kids, bad boys, and mean girls march shoulder to shoulder through the decades in an eternal cycle of mindless oppression and hopeless sexual obsession. Toad, the Vespa-riding geek of American Graffiti, could just as easily be the reeking-of-virginity Finch in the American Pie movies. The bitch-to-the-bone Heathers of Heathers are clones (or maybe it's vice-versa) of the devious Cheerios cheering squad in Glee. Growing up is growing up.
So saying that Netflix's back-to-the-'90s Everything Sucks! is derivative isn't a criticism, just an observation. Unlike ABC's Grown-ish, which swallowed The Breakfast Club and then regurgitated it whole, Everything Sucks! isn't a ripoff. But it's trapped by the parameters of the genre. There isn't much to see in it that you haven't run across before: a doomed romance not unlike the one in 16 Candles, a raucous cafeteria scene with echoes of Animal House, botched and malapropistic morning school announcements like Grease.
But God knows kids who went to high school in the late 1990s deserve their chance to wallow in fuzzy nostalgia, too, especially since the two decades since they graduated have been largely comprised of economic malaise and Middle Eastern wars.
So Everything Sucks! will have to do, and it does. It's funny, if not clamorously so; superbly acted, by a bunch of people you never heard of; and good-hearted, without being Hallmark-ish. You may not be screaming "Author!" at the end of every episode, but you might be smiling and thinking that 1996—existing in an age when the primary teenage use of cell phones was not to tearfully inform parents that a madman with an AR-15 was firing through the school windows—wasn't so bad.
That's the year in which Everything Sucks! is set, in Boring, Oregon, which really exists even if the show's precise mise en scène, Boring High School ("Home of the Boring Beavers!") does not.
Freshman geeks Luke (Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Feed the Beast), McQuaid (Rio Mangini, Nickelodeon's Bella and the Bulldogs) and Tyler (newcomer Quinn Liebling), frantically searching for protection from the terrors of high school, decide they might have a shot at the Audio-Visual Club. "It's beneath choir," notes one of them hopefully. "It's beneath Weather Club."
Indeed, the AV Club turns out to be largely populated of clods and spastics whose closed-circuit TV production of the morning announcements is an ongoing technical disaster.
When Luke tries to help out one of the crew, a pretty but eremitic girl named Kate (Canadian TV actress Peyton Kennedy), he peers into the viewfinder of her camera and warns her, "You're a little out of focus." Her reply—"I know, I'm trying to fix that"—will prove to be more ambiguous than Luke understands. Kate is laden with secrets, which Luke doesn't know as he lays plans to date her.
What follows is the predictable if amusingly well-executed humor of a nerd suitor trying to punch above his romantic weight. (First dilemma: Whether to ask for the date via fax or telepathy.) But there's also a poignant streak; both Luke and Kate live in single-parent households that have left them with significant emotional scar tissue.
And the rest of the characters are all, to some degree, loons. McQuaid, the group's Cassandra, goes epochally gloomy upon learning that Kate is the principal's daughter, which will surely put targets on all their backs. The nothing-left-to-lose Tyler, his family so disaffected that his dad named the family dog after Charles Manson, is too awed that Luke has a shot at an "older woman" (Kate is a sophomore) to worry.
Then there's Emaline (Sydney Sweeney, The Handmaid's Tale), the oversexed queen of the drama department, who launches into Shakespearian scenes in the cafeteria, hallway, or wherever she happens to be, which often end with her hyper-erotically stabbing herself to death while the nerds clamber over one another to eat the weapon, an ice-cream bar. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, of Columbia House CD clubs and Beavis & Butthead and Ricky Martin… .
Photo Credit: 'Everything Sucks!' / Netflix