Fair warning: Early episodes of “Everything Sucks!” are uneven at best. The half-hour high school comedy resembles the gawky, inexperienced teenagers it depicts: There are lots of awkward tonal collisions; the mix of melodrama, drama, and comedy fails to gel at times; and some characters and situations are a little too cartoonish to really work.
But it’s almost a different show in its final stretch of episodes. Once it finds its sweet spot, it becomes more than the sum of its influences. What emerges is a somewhat predictable but ultimately heartfelt and charming story about the ways in which self-knowledge is haltingly acquired by adolescents — and adults, too.
At first glance, “Everything Sucks!” seems to be an unholy combination of “American Vandal,” “13 Reasons Why,” and “Stranger Things,” with a dash of “Fuller House” thrown in. It’s got high schoolers working on a video project, the kids deal with an assortment of adults who are often well-intentioned but clueless, there are broad jokes (the school team is the Beavers), and adolescent crushes drive most of the narrative. If nothing else, one wonders if Netflix got a volume discount on the number of retro high school lockers, clunky video cameras, and cafeteria tables its production designers have ordered during the last few years.
In the course of the first few episodes, the high school’s AV club and drama club — usually mortal enemies — begin to work together on a low-budget film. Some of the slapdash comedy fails to mesh with the “Wonder Years” vibe of quieter scenes, and a couple of the drama-club members are brash to the point of being grating. But others are vulnerable and become multi-dimensional over time, and give the viewer reasons to ride out the show’s bumpy patches. Patch Darragh and Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, two single parents who meet through their kids, bring particular deftness and warmth to their roles.
“Everything Sucks!” is set in 1996 in the Pacific Northwest — in a town called Boring — and you will not have to wait long to encounter Jolt Cola, Zima, and a classic Oasis album being played on a Discman. Once the characters acquire more texture, it’s hard to be curmudgeonly about the proliferation of flannel shirts and puffy hairstyles, even for those who are wary of the wave of nostalgia overtaking TV. All things considered, if “Everything Sucks” helps viewers find a new appreciation of Tori Amos, whose music is featured effectively in a couple of episodes, the whole endeavor was probably worth it.
As the show calms down and gains focus, the core characters learn that taking chances comes with consequences, that true friendship must involve honesty and acceptance, and that they don’t necessarily have to be the person that others want them to be. The emotional pull of the last two or three episodes of the season is palpable, which is not something I would have predicted while watching the pilot.
There’s also a coming-out story at the heart of the show, one that isn’t unrealistic about the challenges of being gay in an American high school two decades ago (or now). It’s handled with surprising thoughtfulness, which makes this half-hour a natural companion to Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” a superior show that displays comparable (and admirable) earnestness on the topic.
By the time the season finale rolled around, “Everything Sucks!” had made me quite nervous about how the show’s key romances would work out. It’s not a spoiler to say I’m glad I stuck with it — and let’s hope it has an even more solid and confident second season, if Netflix decides to order one.