I would never have watched the new Neflix sitcom No Good Nick, but I’m a straight guy who went to high school in the 1990s. Of course, I had a crush on Melissa Joan Hart, first Clarissa, who explained it all, and then the original Sabrina, who was casting spells just as The Craft made it cool to do so. And I was a child in the 1980s, so I watched The Goonies enough that Mikey – uh, Sean Astin – became indelibly etched into my childhood memories, long before the same happened for millennials after watching the tedious Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Given my background, I thought the new sitcom (still a viable form of entertainment in the 1990s) No Good Nick, which stars Hart and Astin as an upper-middle-class mother and father in Portland, would be decent fare to watch after a long day, when I was too tired to read or to watch something more intelligent. With a few notable exceptions (e.g. All in the Family) four-camera situation comedies have always been cheap, lowest-common-denominator entertainment for the masses, no thought required. What I found, however, was a darkly intelligent show that asked challenging questions under the veneer of saccharine family comedy.
Expecting bland escapist entertainment with blast-from-the-past actors, I was drawn in and binge watched both seasons (released, strangely, within a few months of each other by Netflix). The story, which sounds gimmicky, becomes incredibly dark incredibly quickly, though it is presented in the sunny, smiley colors that one might find more reminiscent of Alf or Family Ties than anything with the themes Nick handles. The titular character (played by the wildly talented new actress Siena Agudong) is a 14-or-so-year-old girl who shows up at the Hart-Astin (sorry, “Thompson”) house, announcing that they are her distant relatives, and that she has been sent to stay with them by the foster agency after her parents died in a car accident.
Unlike the Thompsons, who take Nick in and set her up with a bed in their daughter Molly’s (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) room, we learn that Nick is actually a con artist, and that the woman acting as her social worker is actually her foster mother. Both her foster parents are bumbling criminals who use Nick and their other foster kids to run crime-rings. Also: Nick’s father is actually alive, but in jail. Unbeknownst to the foster parents, he is running Nick behind their backs, using her as his girl on the outside to criminally raise money to pay for his, as we’re told early on, legal fees. The Harbaugh’s, Nick’s foster parents, are masters of navigating America’s corrupt foster care systems, deftly placing people on “the inside.”
The first season of No Good Nick, which debuted on Netflix in April, kept itself firmly within the format of a TV sitcom. It was episodic for the most part, had the typical four-camera setup, and even had a live studio audience. But watching it, one can’t help but ask: who is the intended audience? Men exactly my age with a fondness for Melissa Joan Hart? But surely “people who bought the October 1999 edition of Maxim” isn’t a large enough demographic to sustain a whole show . No Good Nick isn’t really for kids, either, and it’s far darker than the average sitcom viewer is likely to enjoy. It is hard to imagine someone who looks forward to piffle like the dreadful Fuller House, also on Netflix, enjoying Nick. This is a production in which the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl who’s being used for criminal purposes by evil foster parents, her jailed father, and other characters, like the mobster she routinely meets up with in a seedy bar. While it is amusing to watch Nick come up with plots to raise money – she steals expensive wine from the restaurant owned by Hart’s character, Liz Thompson, and replaces it with cheap swill labeled as expensive wine, for example – the real strength of the first season is in watching a girl trying to navigate between ripping off the Thompsons and falling in love with them as a family, all the while trying to handle myriad layers of guilt: guilt at stealing from the people who took her in, as well as guilt towards her father, both for sometimes failing him in raising money and, especially, for beginning to see the Thompson’s as family.
But if the bleak comedy masked as slapstick keeps the viewer perplexed but entertained in the first season, the second season, released Aug. 5, goes much further. I would be creating spoilers if I were to say too much, but starting about midway through the second season, we learn Nick’s real backstory, and the Thompsons are part of it. Their clan, which until that episode, entitled “The Italian Job”, had seemed like the typical perfect sitcom family, are, while operating within the confines of the law, themselves far from perfect and, in being so, are in large part responsible for the destruction of Nick’s life with her father, a fact of which they remain blissfully unaware until the end of season two.
Especially starting here, at “The Italian Job”, the series remains both true to sitcom form – and blows it up at the same time. Astin’s perfect suburban father, always spouting platitudes about the importance of family and sticking together, also embodies the dark side of those beliefs: must love of family come at others’ expense? Is life a zero-sum game?
The series raises further unexpected questions: are we always ultimately responsible for our actions? What is our responsibility to each other beyond those within our immediate circles? Going even further: what is the nature of people? Is humanity irredeemably flawed? Are even seemingly selfless acts somehow motivated by greed? (Molly, who becomes Nick’s best friend, sort of, runs their school’s “Volunteer Club,” an obvious lampoon of middle-class philanthropy and social media influencers.) Or, perhaps, people are inherently good, pushed to evil deeds by their surrounding influences, and everyone is trapped by the bad choices of everyone else.
In one poignant scene, Nick, talking with her father, discusses the revenge she’s just exacted, and how she actually began to enjoy it. “It was hard at first,” she says. “But then it got easier and easier, and I didn’t even have to think about it…and for a minute, I enjoyed it. What does that say about me? I’m a bad person.” But we, the audience, know she’s not: she’s the character with the strongest moral compass, the only character who seems to grapple with the ethics and morality of each decision she makes that doesn’t involve a quick con.
Does our world determine us? Or do we determine our world? Maybe the answer is neither, but maybe our choices define who we are. As Nick notes in an emotional conversation with someone who truly has been wronged and who has just as truly wronged her, “All of those were your choices, and [no one] made you do any of them.”
Nick does something most sitcoms do not do: underneath one-liners and perfectly set-up jokes, it deals with the world as it is, with all of its flaws and all of its potential for redemption; with its greed and abuse, and with the loving kindness somewhere in each person; with its zero-sum competition and the innate human desire for love and cooperation. As much as the show’s humor is rooted in darkness, and the notion of “homo homini lupus”, it turns out to be, more than anything else, a show about redemption, even if not everyone is redeemed, and not every redemption is full.
Perhaps even sitcoms can be redeemed.
No Good Nick
Starring Sienna Agudong, Melissa Joan Hart, Sean Astin, Lauren Lindsey Donzis, Kalama Epstein
Now streaming on Netflix