Netflix’s Everything Sucks! utilizes ‘90s culture for timeless story of identities
Nostalgia is not a new trend, yet it is very noticeable in current films and TV shows. The return of shows like Will and Grace and Full House, and the sequels to decades-old movies like Blade Runner and Star Wars betray a taste for the past. Netflix exploited this taste as part of its critically acclaimed 1980s-set show Stranger Things, and it tries to do the same with its new 1990s-set series, Everything Sucks!
The show takes place in the community of Boring, Oregon, where tourists only come to take pictures with the city sign, and high school students deal with the daily awkwardness of growing up. In Boring High School, character alliances tend to fall into the audiovisual club or the drama club, and romantic rumors fly at a blinding pace.
Stars of the show said that they were provided with a set list to prepare for the experience of acting through the 1990s, and this preparation is visible. Everything Sucks! comes across as a more modern version of the show Freaks and Geeks, even though the two are set in the same decade. Like That ‘70s Show, Everything Sucks! comes two decades after the time period it represents, giving viewers an opportunity to look back in time through a modern lens.
As such, Everything Sucks! is full of nostalgic references, yet they rarely overshadow the compelling story lying beneath. At any time, high school students will be searching for their own identity, and this is shown through the framing of the show’s time period. In the first couple of episodes, which were watched for the purposes of review, Kate Messner, played by Peyton Kennedy, deals with the fact that she is the daughter of the principal while also discovering her sexuality. Additionally, Luke O’Neil, played by Jahi Di’Allo Winston tries to find his place as a freshman in a new environment, and Sydney Sweeney’s Emaline reckons with drama in fiction and in her life.
Everything Sucks! has a sweetness to it, with characters opening themselves up to their friends and closing themselves off from their parents.
Kennedy does some particularly heavy lifting, raking emotion out of a poker face for her character, as Kate refuses to snitch on a student who bullied her. Patch Darragh plays Kate’s father Ken, who is the heart of the show, getting put down for caring too much. It is fun to watch him fail, even if watching comes with a small twinge of guilt. It is even enjoyable to watch the high school bullying, as the drama kids bring charisma to their cruelty.
Highlights of the show’s start are in the creative efforts of the characters. A lunchtime drama is played with excessive theatricality, where the intensity of Emaline and her boyfriend is a joy to watch. A music video made at the end of the second episode bears a strong resemblance to sequences in the 2016 film Sing Street, and offers a tenderness to it that is a joy to find.
Not every moment hits and not every piece of nostalgia is a necessity. The character of McQuaid, a bespectacled worrywart in the AV club, can become grating. The verbal and visual references may become a bit much, but Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, the show’s creators, made a show that is earnest and entertaining — timeless in its focused era.
Most importantly, Everything Sucks! does not take an idealized nostalgic view. There is no shortage of language out in the world praising the past, with titles like “The Greatest Generation” and slogans like “Make America Great Again.” Even as some may appreciate elements such as jelly bracelets, scrunchies, big hair and bedazzled jean jackets, it is important not to allow these frivolities to overtake honesty in storytelling.
Time will continue to move on and creators will continue to look back. People impose their values and perspectives on the past, reconsidering where they have been and hoping to take lessons into the future, even as they immerse themselves in the references and cultural markers of those past points.