Since the moment the first press release for Netflix’s newest multicam sitcom, No Good Nick, appeared in my inbox, I’ve been trying—and failing—to imagine what its pitch meeting must have been like:
“So it’s about this thirteen-year-old foster kid, Nick, right? Who moves in with a family parented by Gen X darlings Melissa Joan Hart and Sean Astin, OK? Only, get this, she’s actually a tiny con artist, there at the double-con behest of petty thief foster parents and her mysteriously jailed manipulator of a dad to bilk ol’ Sabrina and Samwise out of their upper- middle-class comfort.”
“So, it’s a multicam sitcom that’s… serialized?”
“And half the adults in this kid’s life are set to take severe advantage of her?”
“This girl will need serious counseling by the time we’re through with her.”
“And… there’s a laugh track?”
“Oh, absolutely there’s a laugh track.”
If this sounds like I’m about to come down hard on No Good Nick, I’m not. All 10 episodes from Part 1 were provided to critics, and I genuinely enjoyed watching it. In fact, from the moment I settled in, I found it nearly impossible to put my phone down. (Don’t @ me; No Good Nick is not a show that suffers for being consumed on a handheld screen. And, for the record, the series includes both a laugh track and scenes filmed before a live studio audience, according to Netflix.) Barring a few major outliers—How I Met Your Mother chief among them—the multicam sitcom is not a natural home for high-concept serialization, but between the format’s familiar beats, the solid sitcom chops of the Hart/Astin-led ensemble cast, and the propulsiveness of Nick’s long con—so deeply serialized that most episodes pick up in the same breath the previous one left off—No Good Nick handily comes together as a ripping low-stakes binge.
That said, I watched all 10 episodes, and I’m still not sure who No Good Nick is meant for. Sure, the original press release came from Netflix’s Kids and Family department, and sure, the three kid leads—Nick (Siena Agudong) and her would-be adoptive siblings, Molly (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) and Jeremy (Kalama Epstein)—are all multi-series veterans of Nickelodeon, Disney and Freeform. Yes, the kids’ high school is a main set, and yes, the bulk of the non-con supporting cast is Molly’s crew of teen girl do-gooders. So far, so kids & family. Even the high-concept aspect fits the kids & family brief: While adult multicams are all grounded in reality, multicams geared toward kids have spent the last decade and a half playing with wizardry, spycraft, time travel, pop stardom, psychic powers, cybernetic super soldiers, superhero hospitals, life as secret royalty, and life as YouTube influencers. A teen con artist? Why not?!
And yet, the seriously dark fallout of the long con Nick is running on the Thompson family is unprecedented in the kids & family sitcom space—hell, it’s barely precedented in the sitcom space. Example: One of Nick’s early schemes results in Liz (Hart) on the floor of the family’s kitchen, silently weeping as she tears apart plumbing, nary a punchline in sight. Example: Jeremy’s paranoiac second-guessing of Nick’s every move—played for comedy early in the season—eventually ends in physical violence. Example: As a result of the treacherous double con Nick’s jailed father, Tony (Warehouse 13’s Eddie McClintock), spends the season pulling on his own daughter, Nick ends up having a panic attack over her inability to get her hands on the enormous sums of cash needed to save him, and Tony ends up… well, let’s just say, Nickelodeon, Disney and Freeform could never get away with what Netflix does to him.
Ostensibly, the schemes Nick gets up to to procure these enormous sums of cash are what fuels No Good Nick’s comic engine. And most of Nick’s episodic schemes—say, dressing up as “the student debt crisis” for a school dance in order to swap out a cash box meant to collect “cultural insensitivity” fines from her fellow students—end up being as low-key silly as any spy caper Zendaya got up to on Disney. But the very real anxiety driving Nick to come up with these schemes is high-key horrifying. Weeds might have gotten mileage out of bad parents roping their kids into dangerous criminal lives, but there’s nothing kids & family funny about a grown man using a pipe-dream—a fancy lawyer taking up his appeal—to trick his 13-year-old daughter into committing crimes to pay off a dangerous debt she knows nothing about.
To be fair, No Good Nick never tries to pretend that those parts of its story are anything but dark. The only time it treats Tony’s involvement in Nick’s life with any kind of humor is when he shifts into Helicopter Dad mode—fretting, for example, about Nick forgetting how much she hates the bubble gum fluoride at the dentist. When he shifts back to making her complicit in his bad decisions, the joke is over. This suggests a commendable sense of balance, save for the fact that No Good Nick is a sitcom. The joke can’t be over. And if you go back to thinking about it in kids & family terms, the darkness left in humor’s wake shouldn’t get so real.
In trying to come up with literally any series to compare with the genre-busting weirdness of No Good Nick, the only one was (perhaps unsurprisingly) another Netflix original: One Day at a Time. We adore ODAAT here at Paste, and have waxed poetic about its nostalgic warmth, its joyful centering of a Cuban American family, and its commitment to folding complex, spiky topics into a format that has historically been full of soft edges. No Good Nick doesn’t match One Day at a Time for character diversity—from an old family photo of Nick as a baby, it’s clear she’s biracial, but the fact is never commented on—but in exploring the stickier, less comedy-friendly aspects of life as a foster kid, co-parenting in times of crisis, and the trauma inflicted by adults willing to take advantage of kids, it comes pretty close to doing what ODAAT so successfully did incorporating PTSD, queer acceptance, and single parenting. Tony’s lies and manipulations even have a good ODAAT parallel in Schneider’s Season Three alcoholic backslide: Both are grave and dangerous, but neither gravity nor danger is softened just because the person who will be most harmed is a kid.
Maybe this is the answer to my question: No Good Nick isn’t a kids & family sitcom, nor is it a sitcom sitcom. What it is, darkly serialized mish-mash and all, is a Netflix sitcom. On its own, it seems like an oddball, but when considered in conjunction with not just One Day at a Time, but also Fuller House and The Ranch and Alexa & Katie, what’s clear is that Netflix has developed a signature sitcom vibe. Being a Netflix sitcom doesn’t mean hewing to conventions set by decades of broadcast sitcoms—rather, it means blending light with dark, slapstick comedy with serial drama, complex issues with goofy-ass gags.
These aren’t muscle groups sitcom audiences are used to working all at once, but look: If we’re all going to be dragged deeper and deeper into the ocean of streaming dominance, we might as well get some new critical engagement skills out of the bargain.
Part 1 of No Good Nick is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.