Cynically, it isn’t hard to guess why I Am Not Okay With This was commissioned: a Netflix executive demanded a version of The End of the F***ing World they wouldn’t have to share with Channel 4.
Even before one considers the actual content of the show – though in a moment we will – I Am Not Okay With This invites comparison to its transatlantic predecessor. Most obviously, both are based on graphic novels by Charles Forsman, but they’re also both being adapted by the same people, too: Jonathan Entwhistle, credited as the creator of I Am Not Okay With This, directed most of The End of the F***ing World’s first series, and served as producer on the second. It’s no surprise, then, that one coming-of-age show narrated by its teenage leads, with a timeless-by-way-of-the-80s aesthetic and an indie music soundtrack, all told in twenty-ish minute episodes, felt like another coming-of-age show narrated by its teenage leads, with a timeless-by-way-of-the-80s aesthetic and an indie music soundtrack, all told in twenty-ish minute episodes. I Am Not Okay With This comes as close to feeling like The End of the F***ing World as it plausibly could without hiring Jessica Barden, Alex Lawther and Charlie Covell.
Of course, I Am Not Okay With This isn’t just imitating The End of the F***ing World, and wears its other influences on its sleeves too. Most obviously, it’s been shaped by Stephen King – not just in borrowing some iconic imagery from Carrie, but also taking its two leads from It (2017) – and shares a producer with Stranger Things, one of Netflix’s few remaining megahits (which itself was, of course, influenced by King’s work, antecedents folding in on one another). It’s this that offers an insight into I Am Not Okay With This’ most significant departure from The End of the F***ing World – I Am Not Okay With This is the latest in a long line of genre shows to use the supernatural as an extended metaphor for their teenage protagonists’ (and audience’s) real-life concerns. In this case, it’s a framework to approach mental health issues: lead character Syd, in the months following her father’s suicide, develops telekinetic powers while struggling with angry outbursts and volatile mood swings of her own. I Am Not Okay With This is hardly subtle in its metaphor, but in fairness, it doesn’t exactly need to be.
It feels – obviously – familiar. There’s a shape to it, to its content and form, recognisable from each of these antecedents and more: alongside The End of the F***ing World, Carrie and Stranger Things¸ Netflix’s latest offering shares certain similarities with Sex Education and Riverdale, as well as arguably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one episode late in the run models itself on The Breakfast Club. There’s a sense that everything here you’ve seen before, in some constituent part or another, somewhere else on television.
Is that familiarity a bad thing though?
First and foremost, it’s worth noting that – by plenty of different metrics, some more meaningful than others – I Am Not Okay With This is quite a good television programme. In a sense, that’s not a surprise; we’ve already illustrated how the show has been built, piece by piece, from other successful forebears, so it follows that I Am Not Okay With This might have some success of its own. There’s a very finely tuned formula in place here, and, in fairness, it’s a formula that’s been executed well: if you liked The End of the F***ing World, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll like this. The timeless aesthetic is well-executed, the indie soundtrack well-deployed, and in an era of increasingly over-long television, there’s always something to appreciate about twenty-minute episodes. I Am Not Okay With This is a confident, self-assured piece of television: the people who made it know what they’re doing (not least because they’ve done it before), and it shows.
If there’s anything unique to I Am Not Okay With This that’s worth celebrating, it is its two leads: Sophia Lillis as Sydney Novak, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Barber. They’re both playing well-worn archetypes – if you’d heard of I Am Not Okay With This before its Netflix release, there’s a reasonably high chance you knew it from a semi-viral tweet that mocked the trailer’s opening line, “I’m just a boring seventeen year old white girl” – but do so with aplomb. The pair are genuinely charming in their roles, sharing an easy chemistry no doubt in part borne of their experience of working together previously; again, I Am Not Okay With This benefits from its finely-honed sense of where to steal from. Lillis, however, is especially deserving of praise, anchoring the series as she does; her “boring seventeen-year-old white girl” could quite easily have been just that, and at times almost is. Only Lillis’ quiet charisma and awkward affect save the series from itself: much as the “superpowers as mental illness” metaphor could’ve been trite, Lillis’ performance affords that framework a depth it might have otherwise lacked. Between I Am Not Okay With This and her smaller role in (the admittedly superior) Sharp Objects, Lillis is fast developing a talent for playing characters struggling with mental health issues.
Otherwise, though, how much you enjoy I Am Not Okay With This will depend on how much patience you have for that sense of familiarity. Some will call it derivative, and they’d be right to, because it unashamedly is. Indeed, where I Am Not Okay With This falters is when it commits too strongly to its most recognisable elements, without even a hint of self-awareness – that its quirky teens aren’t just into vinyl and cassettes but also VHS tapes would feel like a parody if it weren’t played entirely straight. (The only bad performance – indeed, really the only actively bad part of the series at all – comes from Sophia Tatum, who’s so excessive and overwrought as archetypical bad-girl Jenny Tuffield that she feels like a parody because she plays the character entirely straight.) Occasionally, there’s space for something a little new – the obligatory “I was only saying those hurtful things to activate your powers” scene, a staple of the genre, impacts the characters’ long-term relationship rather than being shrugged off – but for the most part, I Am Not Okay With This has very little interest in subverting or interrogating the archetypes it’s built from.
More than anything else, though, I Am Not Okay With This put me in mind of another Netflix Original: Daybreak.
Stylistically, I Am Not Okay With This shares considerably less with Daybreak than it does other programmes, and suggesting the latter was an influence on the former would surely be a stretch. Still, there are certain similarities between them, and there’s a sense that they run parallel to one another: both are adapted from popular graphic novels, focusing on teenagers in a supernatural milieu (in this case, it’s post-zombie apocalypse) with a broadly similar soundtrack, use of voiceover narration, and an obvious debt to the 1980s. Beyond the material links one might draw, though, is the fact that Daybreak feels familiar too – the latest in a long line of stories with essentially the same premise.
It should be stressed that Daybreak was not always a particularly good television programme. It was often frustrating, consistently inconsistent, and had a litany of easily highlighted flaws. In fact, it’d be hard to argue with someone who preferred I Am Not Okay With This, which is – by plenty of different metrics, some more meaningful than others – probably actually the better programme.
Crucially, though, what set Daybreak apart from I Am Not Okay With This was a far greater level of self-awareness, a willingness to break from and subvert its formula, and the conviction to take a risk. One episode is structured as a Samurai movie homage, while the next is an ostentatiously experimental dream sequence that climaxes with a performance by an all-female Latina Morrissey cover band; the next episode is wildly scaled back in contrast, with only two cast members and set in one location, while the finale has no dialogue for the first twenty minutes. By contrast, the closest I Am Not Okay With This comes to anything remotely similar is altering the title card to I Am Not Okay With This at the top of one episode. For all that I Am Not Okay With This might have been the more polished series, Daybreak’s rough edges, part and parcel with its creativity and flourish, made it an altogether more memorable and compelling piece of television. It was a good show that, with time, might have gone on to be great.
Daybreak was cancelled in mid-December, not even a full two months after its October premier. I suspect I was one of maybe five people to be sad about that: it didn’t even generate the otherwise traditional slew of petitions and protests we’ve come to expect when Netflix cancels something. There’s no word yet as to whether I Am Not Okay With This will receive a second series, but it seems a sure bet.
It isn’t, of course, that television shows copying other, more successful predecessors is a new phenomenon – take a look at essentially any police procedural. If The End of the F***ing World had been successful a decade ago, something similar likely would’ve followed in some form or another. But I Am Not Okay With This feels different, borne not of the (genuine and valid) creative instinct to know who to steal from, but a calculated set of decisions informed by closely monitored user data. As Alison Herman at The Ringer points out, “‘Teen-Driven Supernatural Stories With a Black Comic Streak’ is surely one of Netflix’s thousands of microtargeted ‘taste communities’”. As much as it serves as a reminder of its predecessors, I Am Not Okay With This feels like a glimpse into a future where algorithms (and the profit incentive of a heavily-in-debt streaming service) dictates what all television looks like, on a scale unlike what’s come before.
Yes, I Am Not Okay With This is entertaining and watchable, but it’s also been very precisely manufactured to iron out all the wrinkles. If it starts to crowd out the messy, the inconsistent, the different and still-developing – all the things that television is supposed to be – then I’m not okay with that.
Exclusive Interview – Alex Lawther on The End of the F***ing World
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