The Netflix series No Good Nick is a baffling watch, not because it’s hard to follow or its characters lack depth. The plot is simplistic, yet at times manages to incorporate an undercurrent of suspense. Even the character arcs, though equally simplistic, are clearly defined and most are slowly, carefully explored over time. It adds a kind of much-needed realism, even if the situation and how it’s depicted does the show few favors.
That situation begins when the Thompsons, an upper middle class family consisting of Liz (Melissa Joan Hart), a gourmet chef who has recently opened her own restaurant, Ed (Sean Astin), a loan officer at a bank, and their teenage children, aspiring politician Jeremy (Kalama Epstein) and social justice activist Molly (Lauren Lindsey), are thrown for a loop when 13-year-old Nick (Siena Agudong) shows up on their doorstep. She claims to be a distant relative who’s recently been orphaned, but the show doesn’t leave us in suspense for long, quickly revealing that Nick is a con artist seeking revenge on the Thompsons for unspecified wrongs against her family.
Melissa Joan Hart, most known for her iconic performances on the 90s TV shows Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has called the new series a “family-friendly This Is Us meets Scandal.” That’s some pretty high standards to hold a kids’ show to and there are early indications that No Good Nick doesn’t come close to meeting them. Quality doesn’t normally come to mind when there’s a laugh track and it’s especially grating during the pilot, where it’s used at nearly every single line and gesture that’s meant to be remotely funny, as if the comedy would somehow be lost otherwise.
Thankfully, No Good Nick somewhat finds it stride in its later episodes, even if it still doesn’t live up to its inspirations. Those shows, especially This Is Us, manage to include some commentary on topics such as race, class, and body issues, but No Good Nick is pretty damn clueless about the various themes it has to at least acknowledge, since they’re so encoded into its premise. Nick is a darker-skinned, biracial, underprivileged foster kid, and the Thompsons are white and upper middle class. All the dynamics inherent in this situation are never even acknowledged, let alone explored. Nick is lying to them and saying she’s an orphan, all while trying to scam the Thompsons and get her father out of jail. She’s also trying to keep her foster parents, who exploit the various kids in their care and teach them to game the system, in the dark about just why she’s chosen the Thompsons.
Just how long can Nick keep all this up while also concealing her true identity and intentions? The fact that she grows close to the Thompsons is to be expected, even as she continues to take advantage of their status, mostly to get the money to get her father out of jail. Or so he tells her. When No Good Nick gets truly dark in the last two episodes, that is when it feels like the very real stakes belong in a different show, one that knows how to truly explore them. Not many kids’ shows include a father who cons his own daughter, gets severely beaten for getting on the wrong side of his crime bosses, and a foster kid who gets physically violent with her foster brother.
No Good Nick does try, but it only knows how to explore via the personal route, giving mostly overwrought ruminations on family without delving into the effects the Thompsons’ privilege can have on other families. While the series may be diverse, at least in terms of side characters, it’s the kind of post-racial diversity that not only refuses to see color, but incorporate the issues that can arise even in the most progressive areas. While Nick and Molly’s friendship becomes the heart of the show, Molly’s activism becomes a running gag, although to be fair, so does her brother Jeremy’s political ambitions. There is a very real phenomenon of very oblivious white women whose well-meaning actions end up isolating the very communities they try to help. But No Good Nick would rather treat Molly’s efforts and those of her friends purely as a joke, purely the result of an environment where activism has become a trend.
To be fair, what No Good Nick does choose to focus on comes off pretty well. Sean Astin is one of the most enjoyable sitcom dads ever, and his interactions with Hart (who is more reluctant to embrace Nick) are fun and relatable for any adults watching in how they struggle to be the best parents they can and adapt to the growing reality that they now have three children rather than two. Hart and Agudong also show very real skill in making their potentially very unlikable characters not only likable and sympathetic, but funny. Kudos to Netflix for taking some very real risks, but there’s simply too little follow through for it to really pay off.