God, we’ve loved cynicism in our comedy, almost to the point that it’s synonymous with the genre. Because isn’t that what the art form is for? We have to laugh because the world is a cruel, inconsequential place and our jokes have to reflect that inane hopelessness? But how does cynical humor stack up in an era when global morale is so low? Do we double down, or find a panacea to the darkness?
I think in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Election we were more interested in doubling down, dropping the match and watching the world burn. We wanted television to match and equal our anger. But now two years into the Trump administration, with harrowing stories from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, to the mobilization of neo-nazis and the ever-present danger of climate change, the emotional weight of the news is becoming overwhelming. We don’t need the comedy to remind us the world is awful anymore, every day is a new lesson in the fact that people are the worst. And this is where Nicecore comes in.
Nicecore, a term first coined by IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, are comedies that are aggressively optimistic. They prioritize empathy, understanding, and togetherness which is typically, but not always, contrasted by some edge. Perhaps it’s the impermanence of life, the loneliness of small towns, or a nuanced take on mental health; through a broadly comedic lense Nicecore attempts to be a salve for right here, right now.
With Nicecore’s progressive positivity, the show’s characters wear their empathy more on their sleeves. They are intentionally exploring our need to connect with and reassure each other in an increasingly unpredictable world. I believe there’s more of a philosophical artistic statement behind these comedies than sheer content creation. We’ve attempted to explain and explore the world through a cynical lens, and these new comedies aren’t invalidating those discoveries. Rather they are attempting to approach life’s question in a wholly new way.
But despite Nicecore prioritizing happiness, that doesn’t mean they are wholesome comedies like you may see on networks like ABC or CBS. They aren’t about intentionally forcing a moral message upon its audiences like a modern evolution of ‘The Very Special Episode’. We’ve felt reticent to these comedies in the past for good reason. Many of them were willfully blind to the realities of the world. This isn’t the TGIF friends and families of the early ’90s, where no matter how chaotic the world was, everything would be ok within half an hour. In 2018, Nicecore feeds our craving for light and fluffy, while still keeping its awareness that the world is, well, a dumpster fire.
Another integral attribute of Nicecore is its ability to soothe us, especially in times of political and existential crisis. Listening to Joe Pera philosophize about breakfast, or watching a group of polite amateur British bakers create Pâtisserie, is relaxing. Like an audio/visual cup of tea. It’s where Nicecore splits from just being scripted television, but can even comprise reality TV.
To prime yourself for the coming wave of Nicecore, get hip to these precious shows:
The Good Place
As our own Liz Baessler put it, The Good Place may be too pure for our world. But it is perhaps the, ahem, best place to start when wanting to watch peak Nicecore. Starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, The Good Place is ultimately about reflecting on who you once were and attempting to be better. Just, you know, after you’ve died.
Believing she is in the ‘The Good Place’ by accident, the show follows Eleanor as she attempts to learn how to be a good person. But saying any more would ruin the fun. The moral quandary the show asks is can a person actually be good if the choices they are making are because of a perceived reward (in this case, the titular “Good Place”). But The Good Place morphs the hero’s journey by making it about getting stronger emotionally and forcing the characters to be reflexive without winking to the audience. Nicecore, and consequently The Good Place, is about good people, attempting to be better people, who are self-aware enough to say “I’ve been the worst.”
Trial & Error
I’ll admit, I never saw Trial & Error Season, costarring John Lithgow, in its original run. But when commercials ran for the bright and bouncy second season, subtitled Lady Killer, where the shining ray of light that is Kristin Chenoweth was on trial for murdering someone, I knew I had to rectify that. Each season the show focuses on a new case by Manhattan attorney Josh Segal and his law office in the small town of East Peck California.
A lot of the humor is predicated on its fish out of water story in counterpoint to the heightened trappings of a small town murder mystery, lovingly lampooning the true crime genre. And while it has a positive three-dimensional look at masculinity, the show’s charm is much simpler than that and something most modern comedies could adopt if they tried. Trial and Error has a sense of “Positive-First”. Even when a body stuffed into a suitcase is spilling out of Chenoweth’s trunk, the show counters that dark image with utter joy. And that’s a task I’m glad they’ve taken.
The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show or The Great British Bake Off, as it’s referred to in its native country, may be the OG relaxing Nicecore reality show. Premiering in 2010 in the UK, and picked up in 2014 by PBS in the States, what separates GBBO from every single other reality competition cooking show is simple. It doesn’t feel like a competition. GBBO doesn’t have the same scripted theatrics we come to expect in US reality television where if something isn’t going wrong, then no one is watching. GBBO is about talented amateurs, who aren’t necessarily looking for a career in baking, but rather do it because they simply love to bake. In a way you can connect this back to the moral quandary in The Good Place. What makes the show so great isn’t because these chefs are working to win a grand prize, but rather because of their sheer unbridled passion.
Furthermore, backstabbing would be uncouth on a show as polite as GBBO. Half of the soothing heart warmth comes from how loving the competitors are with each other. If there is a problem with their bake, someone will come to offer a hand rather than letting their fellow baker fail so they may move on to the next week. In many ways, GBBO feels almost utopian in its pleasantness, which makes sense why we feel depressed after each new season is done. Like the bakers, you don’t ever want to leave the tent.
Joe Pera Talks With You
Remember how I said The Good Place was too pure for our world? Well, I lied, because if any show on TV is too good for our black-hearted planet it’s Joe Pera Talks With You.
Featuring a fictionalized version of himself, Joe Pera Talks With You works like a wholesome work of art by David Lynch. At times educational while layering a bare-bones narrative, Joe Pera Talks With You feels like the spiritual progression of John Lurie’s 1991 TV show Fishing With John. Like a warm fire heating up a tin foil patch of cinnamon apples, the show is uniquely funny, is unafraid to radiate the loneliness of our small towns, while also nourishing our soul in ways that no other show truly does.
When Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered five years ago there is no way that it could have predicted 2018’s cultural conversation surrounding law enforcement in this country. But it’s a testament to the shows positive attitude and esoteric charm that it never feels uncomfortable to be laughing at a show where we see the ineptitude behind the badge. Not only because when the cops dopey charms come out, it’s never because they are bad at what they do. Quite the opposite really.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine rather bravely looks at social issues surrounding police officers, from diversity to racial profiling, in an honest way. But especially in how they wrestle with the complicated masculinity that many cops bring with them to the job. From Jake to Terry to Boyle and Holt, each character brings its own separate facet of positive masculinity in what feels like an urgent plea to society to say “These are what real men look like. Not ones that bottle their emotions and express them in rage, but rather ones who realize there are healthier ways to solve problems.” By eschewing the cliches of tough guy entertainment to normalize positive masculinity through empathetic self-confidence, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Nicecore’s way of sticking it to the patriarchy.
Parks and Recreation
Michael Schur has The Midas Touch. Whatever that man seemingly lays his hands on turns to gold, and there’s a reason behind that. He cultivates an attitude of well being, communication, and understanding in his writer’s rooms that bleeds into his shows like The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but it all started with the little show that could: Parks and Recreation.
Swiftly divorcing itself from The Office style of mock-doc-comedy, Parks and Recreation found it’s footing as a converse to other middle-America small town sitcoms like Last Man Standing and Roseanne. Both of those programs hinge on purporting to show what “Real Americans” look like. But, in a more honest and oddball way, that’s exactly what Parks and Rec does as well. It just doesn’t try to exalt its subjects, placing the working class upon a pedestal to be politicized. No, what makes Parks and Rec Nicecore is its ability to not shy away from the narrow minds that come with small-town Americana, while highlighting how important and good the people of these towns also are. That we are all “real Americans”, especially the kind ones and the weird ones. Rectifying (and sometimes reinforcing) the stereotypes of small town USA.
What puts the Core in Superstore‘s Nicecore is the strangeness of the customers in their version of the big box pseudo Wal-Mart, Cloud 9. Between the hijinks of the employees, we get these snapshot glimpses into what the customers are buying or why they’re there. And while some of it’s purposefully bizarre like a man mistaking a candlelit memorial for a display of picture frames, other times we see people in honest moments like someone trying on new clothes before they rekindle things with a spouse. Superstore is about seeing the people who work in customer service hell in a humanistic way, while embracing the inherent quirks that develop between those who tough out that job together.
As a cisgender straight white male, I cannot adequately talk about the diverse representation, or lack thereof, on the revival of Queer Eye. But I will point you here and here for pieces that can tackle that aspect of the show with more nuanced experience.
What I find most resonant and surprising with Queer Eye is how impactful it is to watch a group of people being earnestly kind to relative strangers. Between internet trolls and comments sections, we just don’t see it as much. And when we don’t see it, it’s hard to remember that it exists. And what Queer Eye does well, despite any scripted theatrics that may occur on an episode, is unapologetically making that the cornerstone of the new show’s philosophy. And unlike its predecessor, it has an understated warmth that doesn’t feel manufactured. Queer Eye isn’t purportedly sincere, it just is.
Despite being canceled, there are still two fantastic seasons of Great News. The show feels like ‘30 Rock Does Nicecore’, and there’s more to that than sharing a creative staff. Does it still have some of 30 Rock’s cynicism, of course, but with Tracy Wigfield at the helm, one of the brains behind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it trusts its endearing weird humor more than any other Tina Fey/Robert Carlock joint.
For example, during one broadcast of the show-within-a-show The Breakdown they give an update on the latest news from a serial killer in Texas. That killers name? The “El Paso Neck Puller-Outer”. It’s this gentle subversive humor that was a testament to the shows greatness. Part of what Nicecore does is give us a nostalgic feeling of being a child without having any trappings of modern nostalgia porn. Great News works because it’s unafraid of rediscovering its inner childhood sense of humor.
The ying and yang of Detroiters Nicecore status is nestled in the relationship between our two main characters, Sam and Tim. They are best friends who run a local Detroit advertising firm who create the type of homespun local commercials you always hope to catch on public TV.
What’s important to define with them is that their relationship is built on unjudgemental love, despite being absolutely terrible people 65% of the time. They lovably eschew toxic masculine stereotypes of how men should act. The shows self-awareness comes out when it volleys back and forth between subverted stereotypes to childish reinforcement of masculine perceptions. But especially in Tims utter devotion to Sam, going so far as to warn his brother to never joke about Sams death because, to him, they are going to die at the exact same time four miles apart. It’s adorable. But Detroiters isn’t interested in big, serious questions. The show is just as bouncy as it’s catchy theme song and its main priority is just like Trial & Error‘s: Positive-First.
As reality shows go, nothing is more enticing than Nailed It. A show that is specifically for people who don’t know how to cook well set with the task of making elaborate desserts, all in the hopes that they fuck it up so bad that it makes us laugh. Oh, and did I mention you can win $10,000? With hosts Nicole Byer and chocolatier Jacques Torres, the show is fresh because it’s about the love of cooking, the confidence to challenge yourself, and the humility when all of that fails.
You could refer to Bobs Burgers as the Nicecore The Simpsons, or at least a balm for the angry factory of toxicity that Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy is still churning out. But what makes Bob’s excel beyond its two predecessors is by not hinging the comedy off of the parents hating the kids, or at least being annoyed by them. You’ll never see Bob strangle Gene like the iconic image of Homer and Bart. The cynical, and honest, joke of three decades ago was “I love my kids but I also hate them a lot.” Now it’s “I love my kids and this strange world we live in.”
Bob and Linda look far more like a modern couple than any other animated TV family. They drink wine, worry about their kids, but also indulge in their flights of fancy in a way that shows them earnestly connecting with their children, even if Bob just doesn’t get it sometimes. But a common theme of Nicecore is an emphasis on positive masculinity and Bob is the paragon of what you’d want to see in a modern family man. He still attempts to be the breadwinner, but he also embraces his love of anything that catches his eye, from gardening to an adorable baby rat, even if it doesn’t align with societies stereotype of fathers. It’s refreshing to see a family that honestly loves each other without relying on cheese to drive their point home.