“Everything Sucks!” is an unfortunate title for a show that clearly doesn’t – one that takes place in 1996, around the time “My So-Called Life” aired on ABC. The parallel is worth mentioning not only because the Netflix series invokes that time, but also in the way it discovers truly natural new talent, and addresses the issues faced by a gay teen.
In that last regard, the Netflix show can be viewed in concert with “Champions,” a new sitcom premiering next month on NBC. Created by Mindy Kaling and fellow “The Mindy Project” alum Charlie Grandy, the show focuses on an adult slacker, Vince (Anders Holm), who runs a Brooklyn gym, discovering he has a 15-year-old son who moves in with him so he can attend drama school in New York.
The son, Michael (J.J. Totah), is a theater enthusiast who frets that he’ll have to “go back in the closet” if he has to return to Ohio. While the show derives humor from the contrast between father and son – along with lines of Michael saying that Vince abandoned his mom “like Fantine in ‘Les Miz’” – there’s never a moment where the lad is forced to question or defend who he is.
That’s a far cry from Wilson Cruz’s role as the gay teen in “My So-Called Life,” and also Kate, one of the central characters in “Everything Sucks!,” beautifully played by Peyton Kennedy. A shy, confused teen – attending high school in an Oregon town literally named Boring – Kennedy’s vulnerability recalls Claire Danes’ breakout performance in that aforementioned ABC series.
At first blush, the last thing we need is another high-school dramedy – on TV in general, and Netflix in particular, given that the service is already awash in acne-years angst, including “13 Reasons Why” and “Stranger Things.”
Pretty soon, though, “Everything Sucks!” establishes its own voice, while capturing the way kids can be insecure, self-absorbed and casually cruel, sometimes all at once. Kate, for example, becomes the object of a crush by fellow A/V club member Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a nerdy type who is terribly confused about where things stand between them.
“You’re not the only one having a hard time,” Kate tells him, a line that sums up not only the series, but the overall high-school experience.
Making the most of its ’90s song score, the series adds to its teen pathos with a relationship between Kate’s dad (Patch Darragh), who happens to be the school principal; and Luke’s mom (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), a flight attendant. Like the kids, the parents’ courtship could easily be cliched but proves oddly sweet, reflecting how those high-school issues and nagging doubts never really leave us.
The differences between “Everything Sucks!” and “Champions” says something about how far society has come in the last generation, as well as the distinction between premium TV and network sitcoms, which even in a fragmented viewing landscape tend to be pitched more broadly. (ABC’s revival of “Roseanne,” which also premieres in March, also features the title character having a nine-year-old grandson who likes to wear girls clothes.)
There’s nothing new about that underlying theme in “Everything Sucks!,” which reminds us that if surviving high school is tough, it can be that much tougher (and was even more so back in the ’90s) when something about you is different.
It’s perhaps too much baggage to call anything “‘My So-Called Life’ for a new generation,” but at its best, “Everything Sucks!” possesses the same kind of melancholy charms. And in another sign of progress, this time around, the gay kid isn’t relegated to best-friend status.
“Everything Sucks!” premieres Feb. 16 on Netflix. “Champions” premieres March 8 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.