Netflix’s “Everything Sucks!,” premiering in its first season entirety on the service tomorrow, February 16th, is a hard show to describe. At first, it seems like a riff on ABC’s hit “The Goldbergs” or countless other sitcoms set in American high schools. And it definitely has some identifiable commonalities with programs that you’ve seen before—a ‘90s-set comedy about drama club isn’t exactly breaking new ground—but there’s something almost intangibly different about “Everything Sucks!” It doesn’t go for the easy jokes—there’s very little physical humor, which is the typical staple of the high school sitcom—and it respects and almost seems to care for its characters in ways you don't often see in this genre. It’s actually a bit better as a drama than a comedy, reminiscent of a truly great, beloved show about young life, “The Wonder Years,” in how it treats its kids with heartfelt sensitivity. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pleasurable experience just spending time with these young people, especially those played by the super-talented leads, Jahi Winston and Peyton Kennedy.
Like so many sitcoms starring young people, “Everything Sucks!” takes its time finding its footing and tone, something that almost fits with its main arc given that it’s about a freshman boy and sophomore girl getting closer to figuring out who they are in those hazy days of early high school. As if to help out the young cast, the producers rely a bit too much on ‘90s references in the early episodes—expect Zima, Spin Doctors on the soundtrack, and a character wearing a Tori Amos t-shirt—but they pull back the throttle on that in roughly episode four, recognizing that a lot of the drama in this show could take place in any era.
Created by Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan (and including episodes directed by Ry Russo-Young of “Before I Fall”), “Everything Sucks!” is about two groups of outsiders at Boring High School in the appropriately-named Boring, Oregon. (I checked. The high school isn’t real but there is a Boring, Oregon and a Boring Middle School, so close enough for me.) In the first few episodes, the AV Club clashes with the Drama Club. The former features gawkier, more socially outcast kids; the latter is populated by people who need constant attention, and appear to be a bit older. In the AV Club, we meet the sweet and creative Luke O’Neil (Winston), who instantly falls for an older girl named Kate Messner (Kennedy), who just happens to be the principal’s daughter. Patch Darragh plays the father/principal and Claudine Nako plays Luke’s single mother, who happens to be a stewardess, leaving Luke on his own and more independent than most kids his age. In a turn that seems a bit contrived, but the performers sell it, Luke and Kate's parents end up dating at the same time as their kids.
“Everything Sucks!” captures well that time in teen existence when a song as heartfelt as “Wonderwall” could save your life. It has an energy that’s reminiscent of the movie “Sing Street” in the way it captures artistic, often lovestruck kids in a way that takes their needs and drama seriously. And it has a lo-fi aesthetic that matches its subject matter, keeping the focus on character more than situation. Sometimes the tones clash with each other—although less so as the show goes on—but it’s the grounded performances that keep it connected to something sweet and genuine. In particular, Kennedy, star of the 2016 film “American Fable,” further makes the case that she’s going to someday be a household name. She has a very unexpected arc and she conveys it with genuine truth and sensitivity. Kennedy truly understands that there’s nothing boring about being a teenager when you’re in those emotionally tumultuous years—even if that’s the name of your high school.