I Am Not Okay With This, Netflix’s quirky new dramedy about an angsty 17-year-old with strange powers, looks and feels uncannily familiar. It isn’t just the show’s plot elements, although those seem appropriated whole hog from existing works, too: Sydney (played by Sophia Lillis) has cropped hair, telekinetic powers, and anger-management issues just like Stranger Things’ Eleven, and in the opening scene of the show, she stalks through town in a white gown that’s been doused with blood, like a postmillennial Carrie. (The cross-pollination gets knottier still when you realize that Lillis played a young Beverly Marsh in the recent film adaptations of Stephen King’s It.)
Rather, it’s that I Am Not Okay has the particular aesthetic that has come to define Netflix’s best shows about teenagers. Like Sex Education, it appears to exist in an odd retro hinterland with analog technology and modern mores, where teenagers talk fluently about body positivity and vaping and pansexuality but don’t seem to have heard of the internet. Every home is a ’70s torment in varying shades of brown. The moment is—probably—now, but it’s a version of now that’s sanitized, stripped of contemporary anxiety, and filtered through John Hughes movies. (Both Sex Education’s second season, which debuted in January, and I Am Not Okay feature episode-long homages to The Breakfast Club.) The characters might be Gen Z, but the music they listen to is pure, synth-saturated Gen X: Prefab Sprout, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Modernity has been thoroughly rejected. “The shitty texture is key to the experience,” one character in I Am Not Okay tells Syd as he shows her his substantial VHS collection. “I can’t with laser disc ... don’t even get me started.”
If you were a postmodernist, you might call this trend pastiche. Starting with Stranger Things in 2016, then cycling through The End of the F***ing World, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sex Education, and now I Am Not Okay, some of the most distinctive original series of the past few years—all on Netflix—have occupied a strange stylistic space, mashing up old classics into shows about teenagers who aren’t old enough to have experienced the originals. In 2019, according to one poll, the most popular Netflix show among Gen Zers and Millennials was Stranger Things 3, meaning two generations who hadn’t been born yet when the original Red Dawn was in movie theaters avidly streamed a television series that aped its entire plot. This isn’t just a nostalgia play. More and more Netflix originals are defined by their idealized depiction of the past, even when they exist in the present. In a world where Sesame Street is confronting homelessness, mass incarceration, and the opioid epidemic, viewers can load up Netflix and be soothed by a cultural landscape where kids still freewheel through small towns, main streets still have diners, and people still interact face-to-face, unmediated by screens.