With the summer hiatus fast approaching, the time is ripe to declare the winners and losers of the 2021-22 US TV season, and the most straightforward success story is that of Abbott Elementary. Creator-star Quinta Brunson’s comedy set at an underfunded Philadelphia public school has a breakout favorite in Janelle James as the foot-mouthed principal Ava, a locked-in order for a second season, and a genuine grassroots fandom that’s translated to respectable ratings for a network show in this day and age. What’s more, the freshman series has emerged as the new standard-bearer for its genre at a time when the classical half-hour sitcom has been left on life support, its specimens dwindling as eyeballs drift to the unstructured time-suck of streaming content.
It’s that prominent placement in the perennial conversation about Where TV Comedy Is at Right Now which makes Abbott Elementary’s peculiar structuring absences all the more noticeable and edifying. Frequently enough to be impossible to ignore, the show’s writing leaves its viewer waiting for a comedic beat that never comes, or just doesn’t scan. In episode seven, Brunson’s upbeat teacher Janine faces a tough choice between doing her job and impressing her hipster friend who’s come to teach art at Abbott. Wise senior teacher Melissa commends Janine on her responsible decision-making by telling her, “Being a real person is more important than being cool, and you’re a real person, who owes me 75 copies of Peter Rabbit before next year.” They hug, and even with that last phrase tacked on to put some edge on the moment, a passing Ava isn’t wrong when she rolls her eyes at the “very special episode” playing out in front of her. There are plenty of instances along these lines, wherein the almighty imperative to get the laugh is back-burnered in favor of the goopily earnest or morally instructive – and that’s the key to its popularity.
Abbott’s fridge-magnet messaging aligns it with a recent spike in good cheer that’s overtaken the mainest parts of the mainstream. As the touchy-feely Coda dueled with the somewhat stoic Power of the Dog for best picture at the Oscars in March, industry pundits boiled the choice down to a question of the sweet v the steely (sweetness won, of course). Likewise, Apple’s golden child Ted Lasso cleaned up at the Emmys on a wave of crowd-pleasing underdog optimism. Indie action bonanza Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently inching toward sleeper-hit status as its box office holds week by week, supported by waves of viewers breathlessly tweeting about its pleas to reject nihilism and embrace love. As much as these varied titles are linked by the warm temperament of the texts themselves, their most significant commonality lies in how they’re received and discussed.
As a reasonably enjoyable way to spend anywhere from 30 minutes to two and a half hours, this canon represents no great menace unto itself, and yet its reception is still symptomatic of a proliferating, worrisome tendency to celebrate nice things simply for being nice. It doesn’t take much squinting to see why stocks in kindness have risen in the recent past, with Americans demoralized by the stressors of Trumpism, the pandemic, the Masked Singer’s broadcast run, et al. While the impulse to unwind at the end of a long, exhausting workday with something undemanding and comforting is eminently understandable, that’s seldom the rationale given by those within this viewing bloc. If social media is any indication, being pure of heart puts works of niceness beyond the reproach of other criticisms in the estimation of the fans. (And the unsavory corollary to that idea sees some of these viewers extend that same privilege to themselves, as if positioning themselves on the correct, ethical side of a hazily defined culture war fought to determine who has bad politics.)
The major entries of the movement collected under the neologism “nicecore” have legions of supporters willing to dive in front of any ill word directed at their fave, and to do this in aggrieved, aggressive terms unbefitting the good vibes they so vocally defend (a now-deleted semi-viral tweet claimed anyone who didn’t like Coda was “an empty, empty person”. This niceness is ultimately used as a cudgel, proof that anyone resistant to it is a joyless misanthrope who’d rather curl up with Come and See. (Or, uh, Tarantino.) On the Community episode taking the piss out of Glee, one of the TV medium’s great feats of auto-critique, a diehard asks of a non-believer, “How can you hate Glee? It literally means ‘glee’!” Those unresponsive to salvos of positivism are cold-hearted snobs; those uninterested in watching at all are bad sports. There’s a sour irony to watching as dozens of strangers championing the virtues of goodwill chew you out in language generally reserved for baseball game bleachers.
Again, it’s hard to stand against something too ardently when it gives so many people so much, but partisans have made it a lot easier by turning preferences about art into a referendum on character. Were I inclined to meet them on these uncharitable grounds, the response would probably go something like this: the attachment to and fierce protection of niceness is a sign of weakness, of needing to be coddled as literally and directly as possible. This is to say that mandated kindness compels an equal and opposite reaction of meanness, which isn’t how I prefer to live. Nice things are indeed nice, to quote a big-hearted show studied enough in its attitude to exclude itself from this trend. It’s a matter of an oversized market share on the conversation for pop culture without the heft to sustain its what-we-need-right-now reputation. The online dictum about the importance of letting people like things cuts both ways, the right to dislike things every bit as sacred.