For those born in the early to mid-80s, the time is ripe for a show like “Everything Sucks! Nostalgia plays well for any generation eager to see itself dramatized on television or the movies — especially high school years. John Hughes, Judd Apatow, and even George Lucas with “American Graffiti” were able to do that in some of their work. Add to the list films like “Heathers,” MTV’s series “Awkward,” “The Wonder Years” and a whole host of other shows and you can see that, when done right, a high school drama series or film has the ability to capture the zeitgeist of an era — if not be downright iconic.
With “Everything Sucks!” creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohran at times come close to the brilliance of Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks,” but often fall short by resorting to stock characters and unbelievable situations. However, the performances by the lead actors Jahi Di’Allo Winston (as Luke) and Peyton Kennedy (as Kate) keep the series compelling enough that one can overlook its flaws. Add to it subplot involving Luke and Kate’s parents (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako as Sherry and Patch Darragh as Ken) and their nascent romantic involvement, and you have a show that treats adults like adults while the drama among the kids plays out in the foreground.
The show opens with Luke developing an almost instant crush on Kate. Kate, though, is awkward, shy, and unaccustomed to attention from boys. She’s also unsure about her sexuality and is somewhat “untouchable” due to the fact that she’s the principal’s daughter. Throughout the course of 10 episodes, Luke and Kate’s relationship goes through twists and turns that lead to heartbreak (a couple of times). However, what propels the narrative isn’t really them trying to resolve the friend/ boyfriend divide, but rather the development of a student film as a way to stop getting bullied by Oliver and Emaline — a power couple who lead the Drama Club. Unfortunately, Elijah Stevenson and Sydney Sweeney play Oliver and Emaline as stock bully characters for the first few episodes, and they torture Luke, Kate, and their friends in ways that seems unrealistic. Drama kids being bullies? Drama students are usually the kids in high school who are bullied — not the other way around. However, Oliver and Emaline become more fully formed at the midpoint of the series, and their alpha male and queen bee personas start to drop as they show their vulnerabilities (i.e., they become more human).
As far as the nostalgia factor goes, “Everything Sucks!” does a very good job of assembling a mid-90s playlist of pop, soul, and alternative music. Artists like Tori Amos are featured prominently in the show, not so much as transition music, but by showcasing her lyrics in ways central to Kate’s sexual awakening. Oasis, Tag Team, Ace of Base, The Verve Pipe, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mary J. Blige, Elastica, and a number of other artists from that era also get woven into the series in effective (and sometimes comedic) ways. So as far as soundtracks go, this one quite good. Moreover, it’s clear whoever was tasked to put it together gave it a lot of thought and curated some very good deep cuts — in addition some obvious hits.
While the soundtrack is really well done, there were a couple of things I found odd about the show. First, the show takes place in Boring, Oregon in 1996. That was the year when large parts of the U.S. transitioned from the analog world to the greater use of the Internet — especially in metro areas outside of large and medium-sized cities. In the mid-’90s world depicted in “Everything Sucks,” computers weren’t all that integrated into the lives of the characters. Indeed, it was only about midway through the series when we see characters using the Internet in the school library. And yes, the Internet is shown in all its 14.4 modem slowness with a Netscape browser loading a page in about 20 seconds. While there were certainly many towns where people didn’t incorporate computers into their communities, the high school in “Everything Sucks!” is an oddity in that they have a state of the art TV production studio — complete with fairly good editing equipment — but seemed to lack the budget for computer courses. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but at times it felt like the show took place in 1986 (as far as technology goes) than 1996.
The second issue I have with the “Everything Sucks!” is the way the show treats race — or rather ignores it. Luke is a black teenager in an almost all-white suburban school outside of Portland. It’s only later revealed that his long-absent father is white, but I found it curious the lead character’s blackness isn’t mentioned or explored at all. Rather, Luke and his mother “act white” in terms of culture and interests. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of this, and I’m sure there are plenty of black folks who, for all intents and purposes, have assimilated into the dominant culture (in this case, it’s a white suburban one). But blacks experiencing racial prejudice in suburban enclaves is far more common than the blanket acceptance we see in “Everything Sucks!” In some ways, it’s refreshing, but for a show that explores gayness with far more complexity and sympathy it really is a stunning omission that a sense of “otherness” that comes with being black in a mostly all-white town simply does not exist.
While the series had some uneven episodes early on, it regained its footing for a satisfying conclusion — with a setup for a second season. So, if you’re like me and enjoy a good high school drama, you may not find “Everything Sucks!” perfect, but it’s good enough that whatever flaws present themselves through the course of the series become eclipsed by good acting and, at times, good storytelling.