A period setting can be both sandbox and trap. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the ephemera of yesteryear, be it the stylish silhouettes of bygone fashions, the fond associations with a favorite toy, or the nostalgic rush of a half-forgotten commercial jingle. The challenge is in letting the past inform the work of art, but not define it. Mad Men may take place in the 1960s, but it’s not about the 1960s: It’s about identity, rebirth, and dissatisfaction, timeless themes that gain a unique resonance when they’re holding a Lucky Strike in one hand and a tumbler of Canadian Club in the other. That’s a big part of the appeal of shoving a coming-of-age narrative into a time machine, too. There are particulars to being a kid in the late-’60s and early-’80s that gave The Wonder Years and Freaks And Geeks shading and a point of view, but growing up is growing up is growing up, whether the characters’ TVs are tuned to Vietnam or Dallas.
Everything Sucks!, the new half-hour series on Netflix, understands this—to a certain extent. The things that happen to the kids of Boring, Oregon (an actual place) in 1996 (an actual point in history, fading further into memory with every second) and the emotions they feel have happened to and been felt by countless others. But beyond convenient justification for reenacting the crowning MTV achievements of Oasis, Alanis Morissette, Nirvana, and other period-appropriate musical acts, Everything Sucks! never makes a good argument for how this particular story benefits from being set in this particular era. It’s a dispiriting fumble of the “informed, not defined by” balancing act, one in which its teenaged characters unearth searing emotional truths in the audience of a Tori Amos concert and the aisles of a Blockbuster Video, but also one that segues into a cafeteria scene by lingering lovingly on a can of Surge.
Credit to creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan for at least thinking beyond who usually gets to be at the center of this type of story. Their aspiring-filmmaker protagonist, Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), is the son of a black mother and a white father; on the first day of freshman year, he develops a crush on principal’s daughter, Kate (Peyton Kennedy), but she has her eye on the school’s resident thespian diva, Emaline (Sydney Sweeney). Winston’s a charmer with a 1,000-watt smile, and his ease on camera pulls Everything Sucks! through some rough patches (and smoothes over some of his character’s most petulant moments). But that energy is awkwardly matched to Kennedy’s low-key, Angela Chase Lite affect, an early example of the wildly divergent tones and techniques deployed by the show’s school-age cast.
In a debut season that eventually frames itself within the shaky alliance between the dweebs of Boring High’s A.V. club and the self-styled outsiders of the drama club, there’s a lot to Everything Sucks! that never gels. Their romance sizzled, Luke and Kate strike up a winning friendship, but not before he spends far too many episodes in pursuit of a girl who’s clearly not interested in him, or before she drops one of the more egregious examples of withheld backstory in recent TV history. Their A.V. pals gain some dimension in the later episodes, but start out as bundles of quirks and tics: Luke’s nebbish buddy McQuaid (Rio Mangini) appears to have pulled both his wardrobe and his personality from a bag containing a mass-market “nerd” Halloween costume. The production strikes a Friday Night Lights vibe with handheld cameras and manual zooms, but the performances and the dialogue are rarely natural enough to suit that faux-documentary style. And those filmmaking decisions only highlight the fact that Boring has neither the amount of character nor the sense of place that Dillon, Texas does.
The closest Everything Sucks! comes to honoring the dream of the ’90s is in the ways it feels like the type of anonymous schedule filler that would’ve been at home during the Wild West days of original cable programming for kids—not quite as adventurous as The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, as frank but not as melodramatic as Degrassi High. Once in a while, a period signifier will jump out to suggest that someone on the behind-the-scenes team left something of personal significance in the TV time capsule: Kate decoding the title of Little Earthquakes for Luke, or the A.V. kids getting together to watch a Mike Nelson episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Netflix synergy!) What’s more common is that Surge can, a bag of Keebler Pizzarias, or the Ace Of Base cassette jammed in a school-bus tape player—items that might’ve meant something to someone at some point, but were ultimately relegated to literal and figurative trash bins. This suggests a savviness on the part of Everything Sucks!, playing the benefits of hindsight off of the intensities of adolescence to comment on how few of the kids’ experiences in season one will be permanent or lasting. The movie the A.V. and drama clubs make together is subject to change until the very last minute; Emaline cycles through fashion trends, aping Gwen Stefani’s Tragic Kingdom looks one week and The Craft the next. But the rest of Everything Sucks! lacks the heft to back that up, stirring up memories while failing to make any new ones of its own.