What do you get when you take every successful Netflix teen show, shove them together in a massive blender and see what you’re left with? The answer, it turns out, is I Am Not Okay With This – a new and yet oddly familiar seven-part series which hits the streaming service later this week.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Charles Forsman, the series tells the story of Sydney (Sophia Lillis), a 17-year old high school student living in small-town America who finds herself struggling with the recent death of her father, discovering her sexuality, and, for good measure, dealing with the onset of seemingly uncontrollable super powers, which flare up whenever she is angry.
After Sydney’s best friend Dina begins a relationship with the rather stereotypical jock character Brad, she begins hanging out with her neighbour and fellow misfit Stan (Lillis’ former It co-star Wyatt Oleff) who develops feelings for her and, when he learns of her powers, offers to help her keep them under control.
What emerges is quite possibly the most recognisably “Netflix-y” show that the streaming platform has produced so far. It carries the same aesthetic – a kind of American high school fantasia that doesn’t clearly resemble any specific time or place – as shows such as Sex Education, boasts thematic similarities to the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and aspires to invoke the same ‘80s nerd-culture vibe that’s been expertly re-popularised by Stranger Things.
There’s nothing wrong with borrowing from other shows, of course, but doing so inevitably invites comparisons – and the problem I Am Not Okay With This has is that it never quite reaches the heights of the series it is so clearly trying to emulate.
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Stylistically, the show most obviously owes a debt to The End of The F***ing World, (right down to the sardonic voiceover narration and retro jukebox soundtrack) which isn’t exactly surprising given the two programmes share a director, Jonathan Entwistle, and that Forsman was behind the source material for both shows. However where The End of The F***ing World felt fresh and inventive, I Am Not Okay With This seems to lack some of the earlier show’s bite and vivacity, while the central dynamic between Sydney and Stan is never quite as interesting or edgy as that between James and Alyssa.
It’s also more slight than the likes of Stranger Things, with certain strands feeling somewhat underdeveloped. One such example – Stan’s fractious relationship with his unpleasant father, seems to exist purely because it’s a trope rather than because it adds anything especially interesting to the series, while a “bad girl” character who crops up to wreak havoc in episode five is embarrassingly one-dimensional.
It’s not only earlier Netflix series that the show has sought inspiration from – there are clear references to a number of popular high school films as well. The fifth episode, for example, which sees a group of five students spend an eventful detention together, is an obvious riff on The Breakfast Club.
But the piece of pop culture that I Am Not Okay With This shares its DNA with most clearly is without a doubt Carrie. Its attempts to echo the horror classic aren’t exactly subtle: we see a fatherless girl struggling with puberty, the discovery of telekinetic superpowers, images of the girl running away covered in blood, a climactic humiliation at prom… you get the picture. As a result, the series climax – which I won’t spoil here – feels inevitable rather than shocking, at least to anyone vaguely familiar with either Stephen King’s novel or Brian De Palma’s iconic 1976 movie adaptation.
It’s not original, then, but where the show excels is that it is eminently watchable – and, aided by the short twenty minute run time of each episode, it certainly qualifies as “binge-worthy.” There’s a reason that Netflix is sticking to its tried and tested formula, and this tale of teen angst and burgeoning sexuality will certainly strike a chord with viewers of a certain age, while the snappy dialogue ensures the character interactions are frequently entertaining.
The two central performances, from Lillis and Olef, are especially deserving of praise, with Lillis in particular doing an excellent job of capturing the nervous energy of a troubled teen, ensuring her character remains nuanced and likeable in spite of her moody demeanour. When Sydney’s uncontrolled superpowers come to the fore it makes perfect sense to the viewer – because they serve as an outlet for the pent-up, repressed feelings that Lillis has expressed with such subtle brilliance.
The show also does a good job of intriguingly setting up a second season with a mysterious encounter right before the credits roll, while also hinting that it will further explore the relationship between Sydney and her dead father, a strand which is touched on in season one and would certainly make for interesting further viewing.
So despite perhaps struggling to become its own thing in its first series, I Am Not Okay With This is a likeable and entertaining watch – well worth a go for fans of coming-of-age stories – and does enough to suggest that a second season could build on its familiar premise to become something a little different. I imagine that it’s in that second season (which seems like an inevitability) that the show might begin to forge its own unique identity.
I Am Not Okay With This is available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday 26th February