I Am Not Okay With This, the new Netflix series from End of the F***ing World director Jonathan Entwistle and the producers of Stranger Things, opens with a promise. Sydney Novak (played by It Chapter 1 and 2’s Sophia Lillis) is running down an empty street, drenched in blood, the wail of police sirens in the distance. There’s no record scratch, “you’re probably wondering how I got here” moment, but by the end of the first episode, it’s clear that this season will end with some bloodletting. “Dear diary,” the opening narration begins, “go f*** yourself.”
This flash-forward adds a necessary tension to the season’s seven 20-minute episodes, most of which are free of such violence. I Am Not Okay With This is a sweet-natured show with a dark side; one moment it’s all charming conversations between likable characters, and then the next something heavy and distressing will happen. The show walks the line between these tones well, and by the end of the short first season I was invested in the characters, what they were going through, and the hints of lore peppered throughout.
Across the season, we watch Sydney live her awkward teenage life. She’s burdened by the loss of her father, a best friend who has recently hooked up with an awful jock, a love-sick weirdo pal who she can’t bring herself to romantically reject, and, perhaps most pressing of all, a budding psychic power that manifests in horrible ways when she’s angry. The series makes the smart move of focusing on Sydney’s relationships with the rest of the cast, especially the ebb and flow of her feelings towards her best friends Dina (Sofia Bryant) and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff, who starred alongside Lillis in the recent It adaptation).
These characters, for all their flaws, are likable and compelling, and the awkward realness of their teenage personalities is what makes the series work. The show has the good sense to realize that most viewers will be charmed by Stanley’s weirdo ways, and Sydney feels fully formed. Her ability to float things with her mind, and the fact that things sometimes break or go flying when she’s angry, feels like a manifestation of the other issues in her life rather than the thing that defines her. She’s a lot like Stranger Things’ Eleven, but a bit older, a little less in control, and beset by fewer monsters (if you don’t count mean teens as monsters).
The comparisons don’t end there, as I Am Not Okay With This is just as besotted with the '80s as Stranger Things is despite being set in the present. In the first episode, Sydney’s school therapist gives her a diary to write in, encouraging her to use it instead of writing notes in her phone. Sydney clearly takes this to heart, as her phone doesn’t get pulled out throughout the series.
The show is a time warp. Stanley doesn’t just listen to vinyl, he favors cassette tapes and VHS, too. He drives his father’s beat-up old car and works in a bowling alley that definitely has not been renovated in some time. The teens go wild for songs like Jessie’s Girl, and the show is rife with visual references to films like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Stand By Me. If characters want to have a conversation, they go and find each other. The show is nostalgic at its very core--Lillis even looks like Molly Ringwald.
It’s also a tad staid at times, despite the wild psychic hook. There are scenes and plot points you will have seen done before elsewhere, and the dichotomy between the jocks and the nerds is explored with far less nuance than in, for instance, Freaks and Geeks (another clear influence on the show) or even the more recent Sex Education (also on Netflix). Plot twists tend to be predictable, and while there are some fun subversions here and there and plenty of lighter moments, the series isn’t necessarily offering anything truly new.
But, of course, not every show needs to break new ground. I Am Not Okay With This is, to my mind, a far more effective dark teenage tale than Entwistle’s other Netflix adaptation of a Charles Forsman comic, End of the F***ing World. This is a show full of charming performances, fun '80s nostalgia, and a plot that leaves enough dangling to get us excited for more episodes.
I Am Not Okay With This Season 1 is streaming on Netflix now.