The new Netflix series “Everything Sucks!” is an awful lot like “Freaks and Geeks,” particularly the “and Geeks” part of the equation. Our entrée to the 10-episode story is through a trio of A.V.-room-loving freshman boys who giggle about kissing girls and argue about “Star Wars” when they’re not getting bullied by other students. They’re lonely, funny, squeaky-voiced, and endearingly nebbish-ish.
At first, I was floored by “Everything Sucks!” — because I couldn’t believe it dared to be so openly derivative of the one-season classic from Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, as well as of the dorky boys on bikes from “Stranger Things.” Created by Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, “Everything Sucks!” is also a period dramedy like both “Freaks and Geeks” and “Stranger Things,” as it recreates the year 1996. So it even has the kitschy look of its progenitors, with time-specific mentions of Alanis Morissette, glimpses of VHS tapes, and music by the Spin Doctors and the Cranberries.
But, long story short, I forgive the series, and I think that, ultimately, it manages to have an appealing voice of its own. Instead of faux-“Freaks and Geeks,” I’m now thinking of it as post-“Freaks and Geeks.” Slowly, the story line finds its own way to portray the difficult aspects of adolescence and the social pressures of high school. “Everything Sucks!” may not be original, but it has a beating heart, a sense of humor, and at least one distinct theme — a sophomore girl named Kate, gracefully portrayed by Peyton Kennedy, who is beginning to accept that she is a lesbian.
In what is a tonal misstep, Jones and Mohan have named the town where the show takes place Boring, Ore. The kids go to Boring High School. It’s a joke more appropriate for a satirical look at suburban life, something much more caustic than “Everything Sucks!” The tone of the show is on the buoyant side, so that the bullying scenes are never genuinely disturbing to the trio of geeks or to us. At one point, the boys — the lovestruck Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), the goofy McQuaid (Rio Mangini), and the stiff Tyler (Quinn Liebling) — are forced to put garish makeup on their faces, but they take it mostly in stride and, ultimately, win over their abusers. Spiky race issues, too, never intrude, despite the fact that the show features two interracial relationships.
The main story line has Luke, who is black, pining for Kate, who is white, even after he learns that she is the principal’s daughter. An audio-visual whiz in the days before the iPhone, Luke makes a video — filled with references to music videos for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “No Rain” — to ask her out. Kate feels terribly alone in her growing self-awareness, and Luke’s video request — which everyone in school sees — adds pressure. Perhaps now, as younger generations are more aware of and accepting of various gender identities and sexual orientations, it would be easier for Kate; perhaps not. But Kate’s desolation, accentuated by the death of her mother, is heartbreaking and one of the emotional cores of the series.
The other students include a few theater kids led by Oliver (Elijah Stevenson) and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), with Emaline expending lots of energy harassing Kate and the boys. Because she can practically smell fear, she senses the gist of Kate’s secret and does all she can to shame her. But, while Kate is in deep water, she stays afloat. One of the lovely aspects of the series is that, despite her lack of sexual interest in Luke, they form a bond, one built on the death of Kate’s mother and the fact that Luke’s father is out of the picture.
Other stories intersect in “Everything Sucks!,” including the requisite parent plot that finds Luke’s mother and Kate’s father exploring the possibility of dating. All together, they form an earnest and sweet, if not particularly fresh, series. OK, I’ll bite: “Everything Sucks!” doesn’t.
Starring: Peyton Kennedy, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Rio Mangini, Patch Darragh, Quinn Liebling, Elijah Stevenson, Sydney Sweeney, Abi Brittle, Zachary Ray Sherman, Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako. On: Netflix, season one available Friday.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.