It's one delight of doing a lot of TV criticism: Some shows really sneak up on you. It's just so much fun when it happens.
The new Netflix series Everything Sucks! starts off feeling a little like a monster-less Stranger Things, but with slightly older kids and set in 1996 instead of the '80s. We meet a group of Portland, Ore. students on the younger side of high school, including Luke (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) and his friends from the A.V. club. Luke has a crush on the principal's daughter Kate (Peyton Kennedy), a reserved girl who craves the company of pals but seems uncomfortable with Luke's romantic attention. Luke's single mom (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) and Kate's single dad (Patch Darragh) are also getting to know each other.
The easy way to go would be to set the nerds at war with the jocks, but creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan are more clever — and more grounded in reality — than that. The really popular kids would probably not even think about these kids in a real high school. No, the war in this show is between the A.V. club, made up of tech-type nerds, and the drama club, made up of art-type nerds. It's refreshing to see a vision of high school social power that recognizes more than a straight line from least cool to most cool and acknowledges that loneliness and belonging exist in different forms, some permanent and some transitory and hard to hold on to.
In the first couple of episodes, it seems like these social scuffles, and Luke's pursuit of a reluctant Kate, are where the show's heart is. There, and nostalgic references to things like Zima and the music that tells us what year we're in. But the deeper you burrow into this story, the more soulful, artful and joyful it becomes.
Much of that comes from the performances, particularly from the young leads. Peyton Kennedy, who did several years of Odd Squad, among other things, gives one of my favorite teenage-girl performances since Claire Danes first showed up as Angela Chase on My So-Called Life in 1994. It's clear from early on that Kate is coming to terms with her sexuality. But Kennedy's face communicates not only anxiety about that, but also eagerness — her sense that she is figuring out how she might become happy in the way that she's always felt like she should be. Her story is not just sad; it's also exciting. And Luke is beautifully drawn as a kid who both means well and oversteps wildly. He intends to be a good guy, but he's still learning what that means.
Much of Everything Sucks! is about all the things we don't say to each other, in youth and in adulthood, and the freedom that comes in the moments in which candor briefly, unexpectedly becomes possible. It's about the way your breath goes out of you when you realize you're about to spill your guts. So I think it's about '90s kids not because it wants to wallow in its soundtrack and its marquees showing that D3: Mighty Ducks is playing. I think it's about '90s kids because they didn't all carry phones, and they didn't rely on texting, so they were more likely to get stuck with the way it feels to try to tell someone the truth when they're standing right there.
It's not nostalgic for the Spin Doctors. It's nostalgic for awkward silences and the joys to which they sometimes lead.