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The Netflix comedy Everything Sucks! twists ‘90s nostalgia into a different shape

It just takes some time for it to get there.

Scott Patrick Green/Netflix

Everything Sucks! appears strategically designed to make nostalgic millennials fall in love with it.

Set deep in the ‘90s at a high school in Boring, Oregon — a very small, very real town — the comedy tries to find its own characters in the tropes of celebrated throwbacks like The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks. There’s a trio of nerds, ambitious and frustrated that no one will take them seriously. There’s the mysterious, introspective girl they’re drawn to, who turns out to be the bumbling principal’s daughter. There’s the blonde mean girl and her terrible boyfriend, his head swollen by unearned confidence.

For a while, these flat descriptions are about all these characters are, despite some distinctly ‘90s twists. (The nerds, bless them, are ready for George Lucas’s re-digitized Star Wars trilogy to blow their minds; meanwhile, mystery girl Kate wears a rotation of flannel shirts and is obsessed with Tori Amos, who is long overdue a nostalgic renaissance.) By the end of the 10-episode season, though, Everything Sucks! finds a way to become its own show.

When the latter half of the season eases up on the ‘90s nostalgia onslaught to follow a group of misfits banding together to make a sci-fi B movie, it becomes far more focused and fun almost immediately. But in a refrain that’s become all too familiar — especially with Netflix shows, which tend to assume viewers are in it for the marathon — it just takes some time for it to get there.

Everything Sucks! takes too long to figure out its twist on a typical coming-of-age romance. But once it gets there, it’s great.

The best example of what takes Everything Sucks! from okay to good is the relationship between Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and Kate (Peyton Kennedy), which makes up the show’s most significant ongoing storyline.

Luke, the de facto ringleader of the AV club nerds, spots Kate on their first day working on the school’s morning announcements show and instantly imagines himself to be in love. Kate, in turn, can’t keep her eyes off Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), who prowls the halls with her Gwen Stefani-inspired red lips curled into a smirk between bursting into spontaneous monologues. (Emaline is less of a mean girl in the usual blonde cheerleader sense than an angrier alt version of Lea Michele in Glee, which is frankly far more terrifying.)

It’s totally realistic for Luke not to understand that Kate just isn’t into him like that, especially given that it takes Kate some time to put her feelings into words. It’s not even all that surprising when he doesn’t back off even after she blurts out that she’s a lesbian instead of leaning into a kiss. As Kate (correctly) points out deep into the season, Luke’s obsession with her is about the idea of her, not her as an actual person. For a while, he cares far less about her than the thought that he might get to have her for himself, whether she wants it or not.

I just really need you to see Emaline’s No Doubt cosplay, which is A+.
Scott Patrick Green/Netflix

Luke doubling down on wanting to be Kate’s boyfriend even after she confides in him that she thinks she’s gay — a wrenching admission for a young teenager to make ever, even more so 20 years ago — can be hard to watch. This holds especially true as Kate’s pain becomes more visible and raw as she grapples with the fact that her sexuality is just that — a fact — while Luke starts taking his general frustration out on her, his friends, and his startled single mother (a great Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako). For too long, it feels as though the show doesn’t realize that his selfishness isn’t all that interesting, let alone some charming rite of passage.

So, yes, it’s a relief when Luke eventually comes around to support Kate as a friend, not to mention when Emaline looks at Kate with new eyes and realizes there’s something there she might appreciate in the way she once did her lanky boyfriend. These teens chasing their hesitance with a shot of reckless “fuck it” determination feels exactly right, and is largely worth the wait.

Looking back on the season as a whole, I can at least appreciate that these teens giving in to self-centered instincts out of deep insecurity makes sense, because who among us didn’t do the same? (It also helps that Everything Sucks! cast actual teens, a phenomenon far more rare than it should be for entertainment centered on high schoolers.) These teens are selfish, sure, but they’re also more ambitious and earnest than they ever want to admit. When Everything Sucks! lets them realize that and let go of the idea that everything might just suck, it becomes much more comfortably quirky in its own way, its unabashedly bleeding heart in the right place.

The first season of Everything Sucks! is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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