"Everything Sucks": Another feat of Netflix engineering

If you like any number of teen-targeted Netflix series, you'll probably love this on-brand original. Eventually

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 14, 2018 6:59PM (EST)

Jahi Di'Allo Winston and Peyton Kennedy in "Everything Sucks!" (Netflix/Scott Patrick Green)
Jahi Di'Allo Winston and Peyton Kennedy in "Everything Sucks!" (Netflix/Scott Patrick Green)

Lots of TV series have that “engineered in a lab” glint about them. The same can be said of entertainment properties across genres and mediums, mind you. Runaway success breeds imitators if not outright clones, few if any can match the original.

“Everything Sucks!” has that feel about it, only in this case, the lab is Netflix, and the borrowed strands of DNA comes from within its own vials. It cannot be an accident that the series about teens in a fictional Oregon town named Boring (though, there is a real place called Boring just East of Portland) can easily be described as “13 Reasons Why,” minus the sorrow or “Stranger Things” with the supernatural element. Here, the focus is on simple slacker humor at first; the high school is named for the town and the team mascot is the Beavers, and that’s good for a snort. It depends on the chemistry of its personalities and themes of awkwardness and discovery that extend from adolescence well into adulthood. That, and it’s a ‘90s era period piece as opposed to catnip for Children of the “80s.

Call it the end-result of algorithmic research, or more evidence of a company’s following the audience habit, or polishing its brand’s focus.  Whatever it may be, the 10-episode season dropping Friday is nowhere near as appealing in its initial episodes as the series namechecked here.

However, Netflix is making a solid bet that you will watch “Everything Sucks!” until it gets better. Season 1 is easy to binge — none of the episodes goes over 30 minutes, with most clocking between 22 or so and 26 – and it has the benefit of being very much like other Netflix series the service knows you’re watching.

Thematic, data-informed branding is smart for a service like Netflix, but it also implicates worrisome times ahead for series powered by themes and subject matter that doesn’t easily hook into existing successes within the company or popping in the culture at large. For while shows like “Everything Sucks!” are serviceable, and this one even grows into thoughtful, moving show about love and identity by its fourth or fifth episode, half-hours like “One Day at a Time” are struggling to survive the service’s relatively new era of cancellation.

Every streaming service is going through such growing pains right now, shedding series that aren’t meeting whatever mysterious expectations they have of them at a rate that, to be honest, is reasonable in comparison to their broadcast and cable counterparts. Netflix cancelled Maria Bamford’s avant-garde comedy “Lady Dynamite” recently, for instance, despite its wide critical acclaim. It was like nothing else on the service, or on TV in general. A quality that would have been to its credit in earlier seasons, but is likely a factor in its undoing.

Similarly, critical acclaim may not be enough to save “One Day at a Time,” a series that made many critics’ best of 2017 lists but, week after its second season dropped, may be on the chopping block according to its co-showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett.

Should “One Day at a Time” be denied a third season, blame corporate branding logic and whatever formula is driving Netflix’s decision making. For example, audience match: “One Day at a Time” is a multi-cam, like “Fuller House,” but the audience that watches “Fuller House” may be more likely to find parallels in the themes “Everything Sucks!” dances with.

Or, brand familiarity: “Fuller House” is a spinoff of “Full House,” a series whose success in syndication inspired this new chapter. The names attached to a series can be crucial. Case in point: Netflix lured Shonda Rhimes over to its fold from 20th Century Fox Television (soon to be acquired by Disney, which is gearing up to launch its own streaming service), and as of Tuesday, snagged Ryan Murphy away from Fox in a deal rumored to be somewhere in the ballpark of $300 million.

A Netflix show from Rhimes or Murphy, freed from broadcast’s FCC-guided standard and practices departments, is likely to draw many more eyeballs from the get-go than a reboot of a late ‘70s series by the legendary Norman Lear, starring the iconic Rita Moreno.

“One Day at a Time” stands as one of the best series Netflix has to offer, and the second season matched the power of its first. But, although Netflix doesn’t release any data about its content’s performance, I’m guessing more of its viewers are familiar with “Fuller House” as a brand than “One Day at a Time,” the overwhelming critical acclaim and recommendations for the latter notwithstanding.

There’s room for all of these series on Netflix, surely. But the secret sauce of decision making at the service may be willing to give more rope to the “Everything Sucks!” journey through 1996 nostalgia, one commencing as a fumbling attempt to marry comedy and teen drama but evolves into a tenderhearted coming-of-age and coming-out story. There are the obligatory references to Zima and memory-jogging tunes by Oasis and Tori Amos, and era-specific films like “The Craft” get their shout-outs as well.

Another surprising charm of “Everything Sucks” is the care with which is handles the development of friendship because a gay character and her close friend (Peyton Kennedy and Jahi Winston) and deftly parallels their awakening with stories of their parents (Patch Darragh and Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) two people also in the process of shedding old identities to emerge into fresh chapters. Their subplot has as much weight and beauty as the show’s contrived rivalry between the A.V. nerds and drama club that opens the season, eventually resulting in a merger to make a student film.

Having the patience to get to the point where all of this pays off is up to the individual on the couch. Maybe assurances about the story’s satisfying outcome in the back half of the season, particularly over the four episodes that close its arc, will interest enough viewers to buy “Everything Sucks!” the second season it angles for in the final frame of the first.

Even if it takes a while for audiences to catch on, “Everything Sucks!” matches well enough with the rest of the streaming service’s ecosystem: It is its own thing, just like many of the other Netflix shows we’re already binging.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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