When a project invokes the résumés of its collaborators in the marketing, it’s often a bait and switch. From here on out, every Blumhouse release will be billed as “from the producers of Get Out”; even if Todd Phillips goes back to hard-R gross-out comedies, he’ll always be “the Academy Award–nominated director of Joker.” Rolling out the credits helps reel in an audience with what they already know, an easier task than selling a new concept from scratch. Nine times out of ten, the practice has more to do with building interest in an upcoming release than the release itself.
In the case of Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This, however, genealogy is indeed destiny. The seven-episode series is adapted from the work of Charles Forsman, the same graphic novelist who provided the source material for The End of the F***ing World; the two TV series share a director in Jonathan Entwistle, who also cowrote many episodes. Two executive producers, Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen, also preside over Stranger Things. And starring as Sydney “Syd” Novak, an awkward, tomboyish teen whose trauma starts manifesting as psychic powers, is Sophia Lillis, best known as the teenaged Beverly from It. (Lillis also played a young Camille in Sharp Objects; between Amy Adams and It Chapter Two’s Jessica Chastain, “de-aged version of famous adult redheads” has proved a fruitful micro-niche for the 18-year-old actress.) Speaking of It, Wyatt Oleff, who played young Stanley Uris in the movies, also stars as an entirely different Stanley.
The family tree of I Am Not Okay With This is such an accurate indication of the final result it’s tempting to simply pick through its branches in lieu of a traditional review. Like The End of the F***ing World, the show is a stylized exploration of teen angst accompanied by jaded voice-over, abbreviated running times, and ultra-violent genre. Like Stranger Things, the genre in question is ’80s-inflected horror that thrives on the contrast between the story’s small-town setting and its epic, elemental stakes. And like Lillis’s character in It, Syd carries fears that are intimately bound up in her personal history. Beverly’s father abused her; Syd’s took his own life in their basement a year before the events of the show, a tragedy neither her mother nor younger brother are equipped to address.
But when it comes to borrowing or remixing, I Am Not Okay With This doesn’t stop with its immediate relatives. Like fellow Netflix YA hits Sex Education and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, its approach to chronology is deliberately haphazard. The wood-paneled interiors and eclectic wardrobes—letterman jackets, pastel blazers, zanily patterned shirts—are pure ’80s; the smartphones and representation are all 2020. And just as Stranger Things wears its Stephen King and John Carpenter debts on its sleeve, I Am Not Okay With This has homages that are as overt as they come. A recurring image has Syd fleeing a school dance in a white, blood-soaked dress, à la Carrie; an episode set almost entirely in detention is one Judd Nelson fist pump away from The Breakfast Club.
Whether I Am Not Okay With This transcends all these antecedents is almost a moot point. There are simply so many, squeezed into such a compressed amount of time, that they fill up all the available space without overstaying their welcome, or leaving the viewer bored enough to consider whether the show adds up to more than the sum of its parts. In less than four hours combined, I Am Not Okay With This sprints to a cliffhanger ending that suggests a second season is all but guaranteed, likely because Netflix’s treasure trove of data already assures the service its individual elements will add up to success. (“Teen-Driven Supernatural Stories With a Black Comic Streak” is surely one of Netflix’s thousands of microtargeted “taste communities.”) Such is the advantage of already known quantities. Recognizable pastiche has existed as long as there have been tastemakers to copy, but streaming technology has elevated the practice to both art and science.
I Am Not Okay With This comes closest to novelty in its performances. Lillis is compelling as a stammering misfit whose awkwardness belies, as so many kids’ does, a white-hot core of self-loathing and rage. Her inner monologue is often cut-and-pasted from the Surly Teen handbook; “Dear Diary: go fuck yourself,” the show’s opening line, is about as convincing an act of defiance as slamming one’s door to blast My Chemical Romance while everyone else eats dinner downstairs. But Lillis herself makes Syd’s reactions seem far less forced, as freaked out by her new ability to hurl bowling balls across a room with her brain as any right-minded soul would be. Syd is only the latest teen from Peter Parker on down to experience powers as a metaphor for the ravages of puberty, a fourth wall the show gleefully fractures when another character pulls out a stack of comic books for research. Still, Lillis makes a surprisingly convincing case she’s somehow the first.
Lillis is supported by Sofia Bryant as Dina, Syd’s best friend who’s dangerously close to ditching her for a meathead jock, and Aidan Wojtak-Hissong on requisite cute-kid duty as her brother Liam. But fellow It alumnus Oleff is the show’s most pleasant surprise as Stanley Barber, a gangly weirdo who hawks weed out of his basement and jumps at the chance to get involved in something interesting. The geek with a heart of gold may be yet another archetype Entwistle and his team are pulling off the shelf, but Stanley has a sweetness in and a contentment with his supporting role that make for a welcome update. He’s just happy to be there in whatever capacity Syd will have him, whether romantic or platonic.
Overall, I Am Not Okay With This is an entertaining binge; it may not add much to its laundry list of creative forebears, but it doesn’t conjure them only to remind us of what we could simply be rewatching instead, either. Only after one has shotgunned all seven chapters in a single afternoon does the nagging suspicion set in that the future will only see more shows like it—that companies like Netflix have so mastered consumer preferences that they can survive on infinite iterations of themselves. Black Mirror begat The Circle; Stranger Things and The End of the F***ing World have led to this latest offering. We may, unfortunately, have to be OK with this.