Everything Sucks! Is a Bangin’ TV Show With a Sweet Lesbian Lead

There’s no shortage of period TV these days, but what sets Netflix’s new comedy, Everything Sucks!, apart is the lesbian lead at the center of the ensemble. Set in Boring, Oregon (a real place!) in the mid-1990s (a real time!), Everything Sucks! follows Kate Messner from her first listen of “Wonderwall” to the Tori Amos concert where she sees two girls kissing for the first time and her world clicks into place. Along this route of self-discovery are plenty of other quintessential ’90s artists (Spin Doctors, Alanis Morisette, Blues Traveler, Gin Blossoms, Weezer, Deep Blue Something) and references (Zima, Fruitopia, Jim Carrey), and while they all work together to afflict a deep, steady sense of nostalgia on any ’90s kid, there’s something very now about this show.

Freaks and Geeks, That ’70s Show, The Wonder Years, Stranger Things: All of these coming-of-age period shows focus on a mostly white group of friends made up of mostly guys. In Everything Sucks!, burgeoning lesbian Kate shares the spotlight with Luke, the son of a black mom and a white dad. They’re also both being raised by single parents. The friends who fill in around them make up your standard Breakfast Club, but the fact that the group is tied together by two minority characters feels like a really big deal.

Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and Kate (Peyton Kennedy)

Also, Kate’s story is just great. For one thing, she’s played by 14-year-old Peyton Kennedy, and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a lesbian teen played by an actual teen on TV. For another thing, the writing is so informed and authentic. Series creators Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan don’t trip over any tired tropes. Kate doesn’t flip out and sleep with a guy to try to squash her feelings about girls. She doesn’t make out with girls for the male gaze. She’s not psychotic, she’s not invisible, she’s not chaste, and she’s not dead. And just when you think her triumph is going to be coming out, you find out there’s another queer girl in the mix and baby gay love peeks its head around the corner.

Riese and I both binged the show as soon as it came out on Friday and we decided to review it together. Well, we tried to review it. Mostly we just ended up having a giant feelings atrium about it.

WARNING: Major spoilers for season one of Everything Sucks! below — it’s more of a post-watch conversation than a pre-watch review.

Heather: We should probably start off by saying what our deals were in 1996. I was 16 and a junior in high school. In retrospect I’m like, “I knew I was gay.” But I didn’t know-know, you know? Obviously lesbian representation on TV was almost non-existent at that point — although Ellen was about to land with the gayest splash in history — and I lived in an oppressively religious southern town. I knew I didn’t like boys, but also I loved Jesus and gay people hated Jesus and therefore I couldn’t be gay.

Riese: I was 15 and a sophomore in high school and had absolutely no idea I was gay, although I was very aware that I did not, under any circumstance, WANT to be gay, because that would make me abnormal and a freak which I already felt like I was for real family-related reasons and abstract I-knew-I-was-different reasons! I wanted a boyfriend so people would think I was pretty and cool. I dressed like a boy but also rubbed glitter all over my face and saved up the money I made at Dana’s Deli to buy carpenter pants at Urban Outfitters. My character is probably, honestly, a mash-up of Luke and Kate, and I wanted to be / be near girls like Emaline. Desperately. Was drawn to them like water. I got that, too — I wanted to be near them and I was. That came easily to me somehow. Did you have girls like that who you thought were the coolest and wanted to be near them but didn’t know why?

Heather: Oh yeah, absolutely. My best friends were the coolest girls in school. I loved them. I loved being near them and watching them put on makeup (because I’ve never ever been interested in makeup) and I loved when they took me clothes shopping. The scene with Emaline and Kate in the thrift store changing room was such a delightfully nostalgic sucker punch for me. I remember feeling like that, not like raging with lust really, but feeling like a part of something so special when another girl was helping me get dressed or letting me behind the curtain to tell her what I thought about her clothes.

Riese: Yes! And it was always at these sort of upscale second-hand shops like Rag-o-Rama, or whatever. I felt so inadequate around girls like that who had boobs and makeup and I was like this scrawny A/V weirdo. But it didn’t stop me from best friending them and letting them give me makeovers.

For the life of me I cannot believe we’d ever die for these sins

Heather: I know from your reaction on Friday that this ’90s nostalgia got you good. What parts of the ’90s did this show make you feel in your guts?

Riese: I was worried the show would treat the ‘90s in a way that was super over-the-top, where the “LOOK IT’S THE 90S LOL SLAP BRACELETS” vibe would triumph realism, which was the preview’s vibe. But it felt really authentic! The music was spot-on — I listened to SO MUCH TORI AMOS in 1997, sitting on the floor of Lizzy’s kitchen, drinking Jolt and talking about art and running away to New York and boys. I was big into Oasis and made a movie called “High on Life” basically built around (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? I heard “Champagne Supernova” on the radio and the whole arc of the film just came to me in my head, because I was clearly a great artist.

Heather: Oh boi, that soundtrack. I had the (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? CD and I used to drive around listening to it on my Discman with the cassette tape adapter for hours and hours. “Wonderwall,” especially obviously. I spent so much time thinking about how my best friend’s boyfriends sucked and how I knew and loved my best friends more than their stupid boyfriends ever could. So I was a big fan of that whole “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now” sentiment. But as much as I loved the Oasis bits in the first episode, I was not prepared for those Tori Amos feelings. I was actually the only person I knew who had full Tori Amos albums and I used to lie on my floor and stare at the ceiling and play them on repeat with headphones on while my friends were out doing god knows what handjob stuff with their boyfriends — feeling so completely misunderstood by everyone except Tori. Also “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” remains one of my favorite songs to this day. What other ’90s stuff besides the music felt real to you?

Riese: Those fucking CDs from the Columbia House Music Club, for one. I feel like I made collages with the exact same pictures Kate did, like I recognized the inside header font from Seventeen magazine and that pic of Claire Danes & Leonardo DiCaprio. I also was sort of the A/V Queen. So I’d edit videos using the same equipment Luke used, but we used way more stupid special effects than he did, because they were new and exciting. The fashions, for sure, and that sort of confusing moment for feminism where we were “EMPOWERED” but in a very contrived and specific commercialized “girl power” way. I was also just remembering, and this goes back to Tori Amos, how even “alternative” culture was only available in limited portions — the internet gives us access to fall for very specific types of music, film, TV, whatever these days — back then you sort of had to look at what mainstream or easy-to-access alt-media was offering you and pick what best fit, even if it wasn’t a really good fit, if that makes sense? Tower Records sold ‘zines and we listened to our friends bands, but mostly we had to find out about stuff from MTV or Sassy Magazine or whatever.

She’s been everybody else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own

Heather: Yeah, absolutely! You and I were talking the other day about One Day at a Time‘s flashback scenes this season, and how jarring it is to realize we spent most of our lives, actually, without computers in our pockets hooked into a constant stream of news and the ability to communicate with everyone all the time on a dozen platforms. I loved that Luke took his phone off the hook to keep from getting harassed, and that Mr. Messner had a beeper. Also their foray into The World Wide Web for the first time. And I love period product packaging. Those Fruitopia bottles!

Riese: I LOVED FRUTOPIA. Nobody was as sad as I was when they stopped making it. They had Frutopia vending machines at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp which was the only part of camp I didn’t hate.

Heather: Let’s talk about Kate! Does she remind you of yourself and also does she remind you of any other TV characters?

Riese: While I was watching I kept saying, “THIS SHOW IS ABOUT ME,” like “Kate would be me if I’d known i was gay in high school,” but I’m not sure if that’s a literal truth or just an abstract emotional truth. Because it was mostly an aesthetic similarity. I’m probably more like Luke. Did Kate remind you / anyone?

Heather: I know I say this all the time but I really believe that we engage with stories as our present selves and our past selves at the same time. I’m pretty much a lesbian as a profession at this point, but watching Kate was like sitting on a couch with my teenage self. I was interacting with her as a 16-year-old too. I would like to say she reminded me of me, but she’s got about a zillion times more courage than I did when I was her age; but if she had existed when I was in high school, maybe I would have had more? I like that these actors are actually teenagers. I’m kind of hard on myself when I think about how long it took me to realize I’m a lesbian and come out, and when I’m watching 35-year-olds play high school sophomores it’s easy to ride that frustration — but when I look at Kate and I think about being in high school, I’m like, man, I was just a baby.

She reminds me of Emily Fitch a little bit.

Riese: I can totally see that Emily vibe yeah! I think one specific way I related was that her big crush was on the sort of sexually open, alterna-girl, who read to me as bisexual from the jump, rather than on the kind of classic, Quinn Fabray / Alison DiLaurentis type, popular and bitchy in a more mainstream way.

Heather: When we first got the tip that there’s a lesbian character on this show, I thought, at best, we’re talking a side character with a good story. But Kate and Luke are really the co-leads on this ensemble show. I was obviously very pleasantly surprised!

Riese: Yes, that wildly defied my expectations, as did the fact that the writers would see the opportunity for a Kate/Emiline romance, which felt very authentic. But it also made me nervous that mainstream viewers would reject it while pretending they were rejecting it for another reason. Or if that’s a legit way for them to ever feel?

Heather: I think that’s a completely valid worry. I will always stand by my theory that Carol didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nod because it eschewed straight male pleasure at every turn.

Riese: Do you think you would’ve liked it as much if you hadn’t been a ‘90s kid?

Heather: Yes, absolutely. I never get tired of coming of age stories, especially when they’re gay. And this one had two separate revelations of gayness: Kate being a lesbian and Emaline being bisexual. Two completely different paths to each other but they both felt real. You mentioned Emaline putting off those bi vibes early, and I completely agree. The reason she noticed Kate noticing her in the locker room was because she’d noticed girls in that same way, right?

Riese: Yes! I also felt like she had noticed Kate — that they had something in common that Emaline recognized and felt ashamed of and wanted to push away.

Caught beneath the landslide

Heather: Right! Like she drags Kate out into the open and ridicules her to keep the attention off herself. But when she realizes what’s going on with her she just seems to accept it as just another moment of self-discovery at a time in life when every day is full of self-discovery. I like that story especially juxtaposed with Kate, who was troubled by the question of her sexuality in a way that felt like she was never going to be true to herself unless she figure out whether or not she was a lesbian. Kate tells Emaline she’s sexy and Emaline’s like “Oh, huh. I’m into girls too.” Meanwhile Kate’s hunkered down in the library taking an Are You a Lesbian quiz in a human sexuality book.

What did you like gay-specifically about the show?

Riese: WELL it had my fave storyline as you know — the (sometimes weirdo or otherwise outcast) lesbian gets with the cool girl who has a boyfriend at the start of the story. It’s very common in YA novels, like Deliver us From Evie and even, I think, Cameron Post?

Heather: Haha, I know. As soon as Emaline stormed up onto that lunchroom table dressed like Gwen Stefani, I was like, “For Riese, I hope she’s gay too. I hope they fall in love.”

Riese: Thank you for putting that intention into the universe for me. Was there anything that you didn’t like about Everything Sucks! Did anything suck?

Heather: I don’t think anything really sucked but I wasn’t super invested in the storylines that didn’t involve Kate, Luke, or their parents. I get it, and I always appreciate a good ragamuffin group growing together but I think the last half of the season stalled out a little bit by spending time bonding the other characters. I also confess that I get a little anxious generally when there’s a loner outsider white kid who gets rejected by a girl, because in real life that often leads to violence. I don’t like watching it. (It’s surreal to think this show takes place before Columbine, isn’t it? It really was a different world.)

Riese: I got anxious about Luke for a while, I was like “stop being so selfish there is so much else I like about you!” But I understand how that worked for the plot. But to be honest if I imagine this show without a lesbian storyline I’m not sure I would’ve loved it as much. Although I guess I could say that about a lot of shows. I think I’m just discouraged that it hasn’t gotten better reviews. Did watch Altered Carbon? I couldn’t get past ten minutes of it and it’s getting RAVES. The response to Everything Sucks! from mainstream press seems to be “ehhhh.”

Heather: I did try Altered Carbon because I’ll always try anything for Dichen Lachman but it was so boring. And I agree that’s discouraging! I have gotten to a place where I feel like I live in a different world than mainstream TV and film critics — which I guess is true. The fact that they’re judging TV like it happens in a vacuum is maddening to me; it’s ridiculous not to at least try to give stories cultural context. Of course they wouldn’t have to do that if they hired minorities to write for them. I think if Luke had had an extra story where he fell in love with a girl who loved him back people would have responded better to it.

Riese: I agree and I also don’t think that it would’ve taken away from the rest of the story. I loved that the queer romance was centered, but I kept hoping for a real love interest for Luke to show up (I was thinking it’d be Kate’s weird friend?) and was kinda sad that it didn’t happen.

Heather: So overall where does this fall for you on the scale of lesbian TV that’s happening in the world right now?

Riese: There’s a few boxes it checks off that we haven’t seen checked off until recently: written by two men, yet centers a lesbian storyline. One of the LEAD characters is a lesbian and the series’ primary romance is queer. I think those two things are both unusual and important.

Heather: I think Everything Sucks helped me fully realize how much my metric for measuring lesbian TV has shifted from when I first started doing this job ten years ago. For so long it was about the quantity of characters, whether or not they were good guys who got screentime and maybe a love interest, what network they were on and what that meant in terms of reach. It was all very mathematical with the idea behind those measurements being, of course, that straight people would like us more and treat us better if they saw us on television (which is absolutely true). Now I want to enjoy gay stories that make me feel stuff in my guts. I want it to be for our community and about our community in a way that resonates, and in a way we don’t have to beg and grovel for. Kate and Emaline in the dressing room, on the stairs, in the hotel room, on the stage: I felt all that and that’s why I fell in love with TV in the first place. I think maybe One Day at a Time‘s first season is what cemented that attitude shift in me, and Everything Sucks helped me understand it had happened. I really liked this show, and I don’t care if straight people did!


Heather: Sigh. Yeah. I know. I guess maybe a more accurate thing to say would be: Everything Sucks! reminded me that I don’t want to have to care.

Riese: I think it’d pass based on the old metrics, too, actually, which is refreshing. It hasn’t been marketed to the queer community at all or promoted as that kind of story, which is interesting. I really appreciated the relationships Kate and Luke had with their single parents, too. That was really well done and so tender.

Heather: Yes! I didn’t expect that to warm my heart like it did.

I also had a vision of Kate growing up and starting her own lesbian website and writing an essay one day about how she realized that was her future when she was sitting on the floor of the library taking a sexuality quiz from a book written in the 1960s. She even kinda looks like you!

Riese: I know, she totally does. It’s funny you say that because somebody on Twitter said they felt like Haley in “Halt and Catch Fire” was young me and I was like, “YES.” And I think age-wise both of those comparisons function. I think I was more precocious and talkative than Kate, she’s very reserved, more of a reactor than an actor. So I’d probably lean into the Haley comparison more. Maybe Kate would grow up and get a job writing for a lesbian website she commented on while doing accounting in Georgia and then leave that job to go work for Haley’s website.

Heather: Thank you for talking about this show with me. Below you will find a playlist of every song from season one, in case you can’t find your Tori Amos tapes.

Riese: I definitely still have Little Earthquakes and… that weird cover album she did… and Under the Pink? Was that one of them? I have those all on CD, should you ever come across a CD player.

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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 628 articles for us.