If you only watched the first few minutes of Netflix’s newest original show, Everything Sucks, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a Freaks and Geeks rip-off that exists to pander and peddle nostalgia to millennials. But you’d be wrong.
The ’90s references in the first few episodes verge on excruciating. Everyone drinks Surge, obsesses over Tori Amos and Oasis, and enthusiastically impersonates Ace Ventura. The nerdy kids argue over whether the still forthcoming Star Wars remasters will be a ruin of messy CG or a revelation.
We get it. This show is set in the ’90s. Its target demographic of navel-gazing millennials suffer pangs of nostalgia whenever we see a snap bracelet or a Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster. But you can’t hang an entire 10-episode series on that alone, which is exactly what it seems like Everything Sucks is trying to do–at first.
The show follows a handful of high schoolers, including the geeks Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), McQuaid (Rio Mangini), and Tyler (Quinn Liebling), as well as the the freaks/theater kids, primarily Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) and Oliver (Elijah Stevenson), on their various quests to fit in, find love, get high, and stand out. In the opening episode, the freshman year nerds join A.V. club in the hopes of meeting girls, and Luke quickly falls for sophomore Kate Messner (Peyton Kennedy), the principal’s daughter.
That’s boilerplate, Degrassi-level high school schlock. And despite some likable actors and the charming locale in ’90s small town Oregon (the town is literally named Boring; their morning announcements close with the sign-off “Have a Boring day”), it’s hard to get into Everything Sucks‘ first episode. But there’s a hint of something more interesting at the end of that premiere, when Kate–Luke’s crush in the A.V. club–gingerly turns the pages of a cheesy porno rag, her breath quickening, apparently experiencing a sexual awakening right before our eyes.
That’s not exactly the turning point–more a hint of where the show ultimately heads. Unfortunately, the next few episodes are almost unbearably uncomfortable as we cringe through Luke’s long, doomed courtship. He uses his A.V. skills to lip sync Oasis’s “Wonderwall” and recreate music videos by artists like Nirvana and Alanis Morissette (again, we get it), asking Kate out in front of the entire school. He gets her tickets to a Tori Amos concert (oh my god, please stop). All the while, she wrestles with the cruel, casual homophobia of Emeline’s little high school gang, who suspect (but don’t yet know) that Kate is gay. It’s hard to watch.
But then, things slowly start to turn around. Kate witnesses two women kissing at the Tori Amos concert and realizes for the first time that there might be a place in the world where she can be herself. Suddenly the ’90s setting is actually relevant as more than cheap set dressing, as a time when youth culture hadn’t yet fully shifted into the mainstream acceptance widely seen today. Kate rejects Luke once and for all, tears down her JTT poster, and pierces her nose (in her room, with a safety pin).
As Luke and the other characters who were initially presented as the protagonists fade further into the background, the real story emerges. And before you know it, Kate is the main character.
Everything Sucks is actually less a Freaks and Geeks rip-off, and more an adorable gay high school romance. It’s not really about the nerds finding love, or the theater kids and the geeks coming together to make an awesomely hacky homemade sci-fi movie, or the cliques and social castes of high school at all. It’s about Kate Messner, a gay teenager in 1996 small town Oregon, learning how to be herself and find acceptance among her friends and family.
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Throughout the season, a B-plot brews involving sparks between Luke’s mom, a flight attendant estranged from her deadbeat husband, and Kate’s dad, the corny, kindhearted school principal. Their romance is sweet and mostly simple, a stark contrast with the high schoolers’ emotional complexities. As the season goes on, the adults’ lack of malice begins to trickle down into the rest of the show, until it all builds to a cathartic, sweet, hopeful, satisfying conclusion.
Everything Sucks won’t be for everyone, and it’s far from perfect. But for those who can get past the cringey assault of forced ’90s references and discover what the show is actually about, the prospect of a second season–which the final scene sets up in the most obvious way possible–won’t seem so bad.