A new Netflix dramedy called “Everything Sucks!” (no argument here) follows the travails of some lowly nerds who belong to the AV club at Boring High School, in a little Oregon town called Boring (there really is such a place, outside Portland).
It’s set in the fall of 1996, which should mean that it holds special appeal to viewers who are in their waning 30s and can tell you all about alternative rock, Spice Girls, Tamagotchi and the adolescent angst of the dial-up years. Pop-culture and television are overdue in shifting their nostalgic gaze in this direction; America’s ’80s fetish remains on conspicuous display in “Stranger Things,” “The Goldbergs,” “The Americans” and so much else.
Unfortunately, “Everything Sucks!” is a lesson in what happens when you get the details right (the clothes, the playlists, the slang, the hairstyles, the props) but then squander them on a story that feels decidedly stiff and half-finished.
That’s too bad, because the show does have a strong cast — particularly its teenagers, who have the benefit of acting and seeming like the real thing. Jahi Winston stars as Luke O’Neil, the leader of a geek triumvirate that includes his friends McQuaid (Rio Mangini) and Tyler (Quinn Liebling, the show’s standout). On the first day of school, Luke develops a crush on the school principal’s shy daughter, Kate (Peyton Kennedy, channeling some of the exquisite nerves that a teenage Claire Danes perfected back in “My So-Called Life”), who is privately questioning her sexual orientation while suffering the capricious torment of a mean girl (Sydney Sweeney). In an adult subplot, the principal, Ken (Patch Darragh), has developed a crush on Luke’s mother, Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako).
“Everything Sucks!” all but urges its audience to recall the now-legendary ways that Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s 1999 NBC comedy “Freaks and Geeks” thoughtfully and hilariously captured the ups and downs of high school — and got canceled during its first season. There’s an equidistance here worth noting: When it premiered, “Freaks and Geeks” was looking back 20 years or so to 1980; to the credit of “Everything Sucks!” creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, you can almost feel what they do about the mid-’90s. It’s a human response to having wallowed in puberty, in any decade.
But “Everything Sucks!” can only sit by and envy “Freaks and Geeks’s” deft touch with memory, momentum, characters and dialogue. It’s difficult to portray teen awkwardness when the show itself is this clumsily conceived and executed.
After a detention-worthy incident with their enemies in the drama club, Luke and his AV crew persuade the thespians to join their effort to make a cheesy sci-fi film on video. As the series progresses (all 10 episodes, at about 23 minutes each, are easily endured), “Everything Sucks!” acts very much like a freshman: Once it gets past its own nervousness and self-consciousness, it opens up a little and relaxes. It never completely chills out, nor is it ever truly funny.
The real problem is that the show is trying too hard to serve, at minimum, two different audiences: the teenagers who will watch anything and everything on Netflix, in their rooms, with the door closed; and adults who might be lured into the potential nostalgia trip. Neither group, I suspect, will get what they came for. Much of what transpires hews childishly to Disney Channel tropes and outcomes; at the same time, “Everything Sucks!” reaches for decidedly mature situations and language. It feels like another case of Netflix not really knowing (or seeming to care) what kind of show it was developing here, and instead just adding it to the heap.
Everything Sucks! (10 episodes) available Friday on Netflix.