“Everything Sucks!” is a great, bold name for a TV show. Particularly a TV show about the ‘90s.
How else could you describe the youth experience in the ‘90s other than to say that everything sucks? The glorious excess of the ‘80s is wearing off, late night talk show hosts are teaching us how to be cynical and carry a sense of ironic detachment, Kurt Cobain is dead, and you have to rewind the damn tapes yourself.
The sense of ennui and dissatisfaction is a rich vein of drama for any piece willing to dive headfirst into the waxy turquoise and purple dart solo cup of misery that is the 1990s. Everything Sucks! from its title alone seems up for the challenge.
Instead, however, Everything Sucks! goes in an opposite direction. It presents a much more conventional high school story than could have reasonably been anticipated going in. Conventional can be fine. But Everything Sucks! isn’t just conventional. It’s cliché and as a result ultimately skippable. Everything Sucks! promises the believable high school story of Freaks and Geeks, combined with the wistful nostalgia of Stranger Things. It delivers Degrassi with an overtly ‘90s twist….so just Degrassi. And not as good.
Everything Sucks! takes place in the wonderfully-named Boring, Oregon. A small Pacific Northwestern town that exists in real life where dipshit road warriors like to take their picture.
Luke O’Neil (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is a bright, film-obsessed freshman entering Boring High School. On his first day, Luke and his friends McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling) decide to join the AV Club. While attending their first meeting (where the morning announcements are filmed and hosted by the crass Scott Pocket and his long-suffering partner Jessica Betts of which Everything Sucks! derives around 90% of its good jokes), Luke lays eyes on and immediately falls in love with ‘90s depressed elven nightmare girl Kate Messner.
Only problem is that Kate is the principal’s daughter. Oh, and one more thing. As Rivers Cuomo might say “Luke’s dumb she’s a lesbian.” Hell, Rivers Cuomo does say that in season one (all ten episodes of which were screened for critics). Kate is going through a sexual awakening of her own and that will lead to problems for Luke, and for Kate, herself in the social dark ages of…1996?
Everything Sucks! is not without its charms. Series lead Luke as portrayed by Jahi D’Allo Winston is a delight. The lines he’s given don’t always line up his character’s age or purpose but rather than breaking the show’s verisimilitude, it just provides Winston to create a character that comes across as a tired, sage old man in a tiny high schooler’s body. The show asks a lot of him and he delivers.
Unsurprisingly early episodes lean in hard on appealing to simple-minded Generation Y and early Millennial self-obsessed goobers such as myself. One of the earliest lines overheard in the hallways of Boring High School is “are you kidding? The Star Wars prequels are going to be great!” There are hackey sacks, skateboards, and those addicting wrist slappy things.
There’s also the soundtrack! Which is predictable but largely awesome and enjoyable. Everything Sucks! creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan have clearly attended the Mike Judge school of excellent soundtrack placement. Each episode ends with a bouncy, appropriate ‘90s jam that leaves you with the impression that you just had a lot more fun than you really did.
Usually this level of generational back-patting and “remember whens?” can be off-putting. But in Everything Sucks! it almost always works by contrast because so much else onscreen clearly doesn’t.
It’s hard to come up with adjectives to describe season one of Everything Sucks! other than conventional. The show follows a Degrassi or even Saved by the Bell-like formula to a fault. Characters are barely allowed to be introduced before they’ve fallen in love and imprinted duckling-style with the first face they see. By episode one’s end, these young actors have been burdened with an astonishing amount of exposition.
One character’s dad is a deadbeat. Another character’s mom is dead. All of this information is exchanged dispassionately while someone handles a video camera because American Beauty doesn’t come out until 1999 and no one realizes that this is tired and corny.
Most of the adult actors lack chemistry. Kate’s dad Principal Ken Messner engages in a cringeworthy love affair that takes him from an ill-fated TP-ing attempt to a perfunctory drug comedy scene that is noticeably bad.
It’s also hard to tell precisely who this show is for. That was a similar issue with the far superior classic Freaks and Geeks. Adults didn’t want to watch a show about kids and kids didn’t want to watch a show about kids from the ‘80s. Everything Sucks! has that same problem but tenfold. There’s often a lack of a sense of joy in the proceedings to go along with a confused tone that certainly can’t be communicating meaningfully with any generation. And not to become PluggedIn Online for a moment, but why does a show that consciously avoids use of “fuck” also feature a brief image of a woman’s bare breast in a nudie mag?
Thankfully, Everything Sucks! does improve as the season advances. While early episodes are brutal, a new, more coherent throughline for the plot is introduced in episode four that helps. There are also some legitimately touching moments that properly call back to the awkward and uncomfortable trappings of youth. Still those systemic issues remain. The show seems dedicated to story beats and clichés thought out long ago and commits to them whether the current context of the show’s story calls for it or not.
Everything Sucks! feels like it was made by aliens whose spaceship stopped receiving NBC in 1997 and have been just rewatching after school specials ever since. It’s O.K. to want to satirize the ‘90s. It’s O.K. to want to pay homage to the art, culture, and history of the ’90s. Everything Sucks! just isn’t any of that. It’s recreation. And poor recreation at that.