Another Netflix UnOriginal: I Am Not Okay With This
This new coming-of-age story is yet another example of the problem with relying on homages and nostalgia.
After extensive peer-pressure from Netflix’ advertisement and social media, I finally gave into watching their new coming-of-age series (with a dash of sci-fi) I Am Not Okay With This. From producers of Stranger Things and the director of The End of the Fucking World, this is exactly the kind of cocktail you would expect - except for any type of distinctive personality and style that made those series so memorable, that is.
The all-together rounded 2.5hour series follows the boring 17-year-old white girl - their words, not mine - Sydney Novak (played by It’s Sophia Lills). A self-proclaimed loner and fairly-new-town-girl who after losing her father to suicide started developing strange and uncontrolled telekinetic powers; from bloody noses to flying bowling balls. After a bit of dry start with a lot of voice-over and rushed tell-don’t-show exposition, main actors Sophia Lills, Sofia Bryant, and Wyatt Oleff grew into the shoes of their characters and the dynamic between Syd and Stanley (Oleff) went on to become the spine of the show as the relationship between Syd and Dina (Bryant) was left shallow and sidelined for the majority of the time.
Let me be clear, I did actually enjoy watching this quite a lot. I’m writing this not from a place of snark, but rather to talk about a broader issue that seems to become more and more common in, particularly Netflix, shows: The tempting trap of nostalgia and recycled success.
In the past half-decade, resurface of love for the 1980s has been overwhelming. After Stranger Things’ raging success, many series including Sex Education, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Riverdale began incorporating the familiar aesthetics of windbreakers and vinyl. And in of itself, there shouldn’t be a problem in utilizing and being inspired by that of the past. It’s a very natural thing for the 80s to be so prevalent in today’s pop culture seeing as many current filmmakers where the children of that time, and as we grow older we find comfort in the past and our childhood memories. But when does the obsession with pre-existing media and the sentiment of “paying respects” end up washing out the potential for new and interesting stories? Where do you draw the line between an homage and an excuse for being unoriginal?
The series is authentically stylized to look as if it was 1982 and Africa by Toto had just been released. From fashion to cars to kitchen design; had it not been for the occasional mention of a cellphone you probably wouldn’t have guessed that this is in fact supposed to take place in the modern day USA. This approach is very similar to that of it’s “mother” show, The End of the Fucking World. Both series are adapted from graphic novels written by Charles Forsman and are both directed by Jonathan Entwistle. It would be unreasonable to expect the two to thus be completely exempt of any trace of each other, but IANOWT is adapted to parallel TEOTFW to an extreme. And it doesn’t serve the story well.
The world-building of The End of the Fucking World is complemented by the funky 80s look. With peculiar and contrasting characters and plot, the visuals aid the story in disassociating from modern Britain, putting it in a world completely of its own. But the design of the town that I Am Not Okay With This takes place in works as nothing more than a gimmick to make you think “oh, this is kinda quirky?”. But the true struggles of the TEOTFW straitjacket that the series is wrapped in is in the pacing and formatting of the show. Presented in 20-30 minute long episodes accompanied by the use of voice-over, IANOWT suffers under the pressure to perform as something it is not. Sure, it's labelled as a comedy-drama - dramedy if you will - but when you watch it’s very obvious that it’s just a drama with the occasional joke, as most good dramas have. Nothing of it is inherently comedic, unlike The End of the Fucking World which - at its core - is a dark comedy. The short episodes rob the series of properly settling its emotions and intentions. Everything just ends up feeling like a bit of shortcut. Like we were just about to reach climax, and then it cuts to the credits, and we gotta start all over again.
TEOTFW utilized the trope-y teenage voice-over took advantage of the overused setup and used it to subvert our expectations. IANOWT, on the other hand, feeds into the cliché. “I’m James, I’m 17, and I'm pretty sure I'm a psychopath,” instantly grabs your attention, but “I’m Syd, I’m a boring 17-year-old white girl” really doesn't do anything for the story. It’s bland and boring “homage” to Heathers, something that has been done a million times before. Instantly the potential for interesting characters and plot ends up feeling like déjà vu.
The show is never fully able to establish its own voice, as it from the very beginning was told through the wrong mouth. Even if we look away from its relations to TEOTFW, its ties to medias such as Stranger Things and Stephen King books are thoroughly evident. From the hidden horrors in the small, quiet town to a full on Carrie homecoming-bloodbath. Although the series doesn’t rest on a lot of direct references like Stranger Things do, the links and homages are deeply ingrained into the core of the show. Which leads me to wonder: what's left of I Am Not Okay With This if you really boil it down?
The issue is not inspiration, but rather when a story becomes so covered in clipart that I can barely describe it without mentioning something that already exists. The issue comes up when you tell me that the lead has a friend named Stanley and is going to be soaked in blood at some point, and I have already seen that exact concept years ago. The issue comes up when I can predict every move, not because you gave me some foreshadowing Hamlet quote in the beginning, but because this is a reiteration of a reiteration of a reiteration.
I Am Not Okay With This is another Netflix UnOriginal that serves as a good evening quarantine binge but lacks any significance above that. I do think that it’s got interesting notes to explore - such as the connection between grief and her powers (and her powers in general), as well as the relationship between her and Dina. So, if a season 2 is granted, I hope it will be able to find its own ground to stand on. For the time being though, its gonna get to sit on the shelf of wasted opportunities.