Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

Josh Thomas as Nicholas and Kayla Cromer as Matilda in Everything's Gonna Be Okay (2020-)

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Everything's Gonna Be Okay
Josh Thomas

Freeform

Other

On a supposedly routine trip to America to see his father and two half-sisters, Nicholas (Josh Thomas) discovers that his father is terminally ill and he must become his sisters' guardian. Forced to become an adult quickly, and to guide two others into adulthood, Nicholas must learn to be a parent at the exact moment that he has lost his own whilst starting an accelerated relationship with his new boyfriend Alex (Adam Faison).

Whilst working through her grief, middle child Matilda (Kayla Cromer), who is on the autism spectrum, has to explore what her future might look like, and what the limits of that future might be. She's also contending with typical adolescent crushes, the prospect of losing her virginity, and applying for college. Genevieve (Maeve Press), the youngest of the clan, finds herself navigating the complex social scene of high school; searching for protection whilst wrestling with her responsibilities to protect her older sister and trying to make sense of a world without either of her parents in it.

Josh Thomas, who created and stars in Everything's Gonna Be Okay, may be known to viewers as the creator/star of the oddball delight Please Like Me. That show improved with each episode, culminating in one of the stronger final seasons of Australian television in recent memory. Please Like Me is pricklier than this new show; a little less adherent to conventional plot structures. Despite being unusually willing to explore its character's foibles, what made Thomas's first show such a consistent delight was how it became an empathetic space to explore difficult issues. Please Like Me is an honest show, but one that finds sympathy in that honesty.

This mix of pitch-perfect criticism and compassion is also on full display in Everything's Gonna Be Okay, which plays better into Thomas's strengths as an actor. Thomas reveals himself to be a refreshing romantic lead, finding ways to make Nicholas's sometimes opaque motivations more readable. Thomas doesn't strain for likeability here. It's a sweet but sly performance.

Despite its relatively conventional premise and the intimate scope of its story, Everything's Gonna Be Okay is often radical in its willingness to explore each plotline from different, sometimes contradictory lenses. Again and again, the show reveals its protagonists to be wrong and right at the same time, and the narrative rarely tips the scales in anyone's favour, resisting the urge to come to easy conclusions that validate any particular character's feelings. Nicholas is selfish and selfless, loving, and dismissive, and it speaks to the richness of the season as a whole that the storyline doesn't need to negotiate those contradictions to suggest a straight forward emotional arc.

TV by AlexAntropov86(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

In many ways, these characters are have grown considerably by the finalé, but they've also stayed the same; they've learned new skills, but repeat old patterns. It's to the show's credit that this doesn't frustrate viewers, it doesn't indicate a reluctance to commit to a narrative or emotional growth. Rather, its a commitment to Thomas's particular flavour of nuance: his belief that there are no right answers and all anyone can do is keep asking questions.

Everything's Gonna Be Okay's even-handedness is most impressive in the season's sixth episode, "Harvester Ants", which sees Nicholas having to approach the matter of consent with Matilda after she drunkenly loses her virginity post rebuff from her crush. What makes this plot point so refreshing is that it provides Matilda with sexual agency and makes her a viable object of desire -- something rarely explored in portrayals of neuroatypical teens -- whilst it also acknowledges the troubling optics of the situation. Nicholas and Genevieve's instincts to protect their sister is understandable, but the episode smartly subverts the more typical narrative to argue that the level of protection they want to provide is restrictive.

It's made clear that Matilda's autism makes her an easy figure onto whom other characters can project their anxieties, but it's also made clear that being on the spectrum doesn't insulate her from making her own mistakes. Neither does the show lose sight that the situation is far from ideal; rather, it's complicated. It's up to Matilda, as a person on the spectrum as well as also just a person, to inspect her vulnerability and tell her narrative as she sees fit. Her agency is a thorny topic that's handled with unusual grace. The show again validates multiple viewpoints on the subject of her autism before ultimately empowering the potentially disempowered party - without feeling the need to fall back on pop-psychology.

Indeed, it's in the character of Matilda that Everything's Gonna Be Okay distinguishes itself from so many other, very good, shows that examine the bonds of family and the aftermath of tragedy. This first season provides a startlingly nuanced portrayal of autism that will ring true to anyone who has a close relationship with someone on the spectrum. Matilda repeatedly asks for the rules of engagement, hoping to be provided with the rubric of life so that she can be a good student of it. Yet, the show is brave enough to (gently) argue that neither of her siblings can provide her with this guidance, even if they are driving themselves to distraction trying to create some kind of life manual for her.

Some episodes even go so far as to argue that the rules aren't especially helpful, that the expectations of Matilda to "behave appropriately" are unfair and constricting. It's either sly satire or happy accident that the show presents the people around Matilda behaving badly and that behavior is accepted as simply quirks of their personalities. Yet, when Matilda displays similar behaviour it's chalked up to her autism. Matilda is neither presented as a hero nor completely non-culpable. It's easy for television to flatten neuro-atypical characters into a series of recognisable stereotypes. Everything Is Gonna Be Okay also does that after all stereotypes are established, because they are usually based on some truth. But it takes significant time to interrogate them. Matilda is often presented as technically right. Her resistance to adult double-speak will be familiar, even cathartic, to some viewers.

Maeve Press as Genevieve and Adam Faison as Alex

However, almost always, this crop of episodes makes the case that being right isn't the same thing as being socially functional. Being wrong, Everything's Gonna Be Okay suggests, is an essential part of stumbling through life, but the show has the honesty to acknowledge that being wrong causes greater collateral damage to young girls on the spectrum than boys. Matilda is portrayed as competent, silly, ill-informed, hyper-prepared, talented, flippant, emotionally stunted and emotionally astute girl on the verge of becoming a woman. In casting Cromer, Everything's Gonna Be Okay makes the powerful case that casting ASD actors in ASD roles (still somewhat of an anomaly) allows a level of specificity that enriches the work. It helps that Cromer puts in a funny, vulnerable performance as a young woman who has dreams for herself but doesn't know if those dreams extend beyond her life-skills.

The other characters are given as much care and complexity in their portrayals as Cromer's Matilda. Genevieve, caught between Matilda and Nicholas, is a stabilising force for the family, but her struggles with adolescence are finely shaded. It's moving to see Press's character look for role models in a life that has stripped her of both her mother and father; she turns to her siblings and female friends to try and work out who she wants to be. In some especially moving scenes, it's made clear that Genevieve is wrestling with the twin urges to be parented and to parent her sister. It's an interesting dynamic and one that's provided with a lot of emotional depth by Press's confident, bold performance. Press's Genevieve is tasked with portraying some of the show's less defined emotional beats, but acquits herself nicely, showing maturity whilst still very much like a real teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood.

Some may find the final episode "Discoid Cockroaches", frustrating because it doesn't provide the happy ending that the show seems to be moving toward. The conclusion of season one doesn't offer up any easy answers for any of its characters. The episode that precedes the finalé, "Monarch Butterflies", is clear-eyed in its criticisms of the protagonists, especially Nicholas and his laissez-faire attitude to parenting. This sets up some narrative tension that's missing from the first half of the season. However, this tension isn't necessarily resolved as much as it becomes a tool to examine what Genevive, Matilda, and Nicholas owe each other. The last two episodes are some of the show's best, jagged and hopeful, establishing emotional stakes without becoming histrionic or losing its loosey-goosey humour.

Everything's Gonna Be Okay starts with a level of whimsy and there's a ramshackle eccentricity that fans of Thomas' previous (incredible) show Please Like Me will recognise immediately, for better or worse. That the family has so much money can frustrate, as very real economic problems for many viewers is an all too easily unexplored area in this comedy. But with Everything's Gonna Be Okay, Thomas is exploring a deeper level of emotion and sincerity than he did with, Please Like Me; there's a sweetness to his character, Nicholas, that one suspects his character Josh in Please Like Me might find hard to take. But Everything's Gonna Be Okay is not saccharine show, just a big-hearted one: compassionate, emotionally precise, and willing to explore a broad range of emotions. Those who connect with Everything's Gonna Be Okay's unusual charms will find a remarkably moving, intricate, and accessible run of episodes that ends up being much better than just okay.

8

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