Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The last thing TV needs right now is another group of mid-twentysomethings navigating the hellish underworld of Tinder hookups and crappy jobs in a big, scary, unforgiving metropolis that’s sooner to chew them up and spit them out than allow for such feeble grabs at humor as calling Channing Tatum “Channing Potatum, because he looks like a sexy potato.” And yet, MTV is giving us just that with Loosely Exactly Nicole, a new half-hour semi-autobiographical series based on comedian Nicole Byer’s experiences of attempting to break into the industry as a plus-sized black woman.
Her new show has moments of insight in that regard, but it treats them with kid gloves on the run to the next vagina joke or exuberant monologue about the importance of wigs. There’s glimpses of wit and fleeting moments of clever joke set-ups, but they’re all hounded down by a dearth of originality. It’s important that Byer landed her own show, and endearing that neither her race nor her weight are ever really brought up in “oh look how funny!” sort of ways, but that importance dissipates with speed once you realize that Loosely Exactly Nicole has nothing new to contribute to – or say about – the struggling millennial odyssey beyond a breezy tone and one well-constructed BFF character.
Although to a lesser degree, Nicole mirrors her real life counterpart’s frustration with being pigeonholed into acting parts because of her looks, but a lot of Loosely Exactly Nicole finds her embracing these stereotypes for work. Presumably that’s the show’s shtick – point out the depths Nicole needs to go to in order to find work, highlight the seediness of Hollywood’s depression commercial casting business in the process – but nothing truly stark or inventively funny happens in these moments. So when the humor falls flat (especially in a scene where Nicole uses blackface on an asian kid to pass him off as her son), none of the industry skewering actually resonates.
Humor falling flat is easily the show’s biggest problem. Nicole lives in a crappy San Fernando Valley apartment with her best friend Devin (Jacob Wysocki), and regularly grabs drinks at the local bar with her other best friend Veronica (Jen D’Angelo), both of whom greatly dislike one another. Kevin’s gayness is played up to the nth degree in every frame, but it’s at least approaching funny when he’s knocked down a peg and forced to learn how to give a better “beej” by the sensible, steady job-having Veronica. She ultimately tells him to “treat it like a water bottle at airport security: just chug it down as fast as possible, and get to your gate. And by ‘gate’ I of course, obviously, mean sex.”
Truthfully, D’Angelo might be Loosely Exactly Nicole‘s saving grace. The show has a cool role reversal thing going on with these two, and the way they ping pong off of one another highlights Loosely Exactly Nicole‘s scant wit. Nicole is your “traditional” crazy black BFF (a role she hopes to land herself alongside Emma Stone one day), and Veronica is your basic straight-laced lead, but Veronica shows more shadings than Nicole. After the pilot (which is easily the worst episode of the three shown to critics), D’Angelo puts a little bit more into Veronica than the working stiff she starts off as.
She not only gets the best lines, but she’s the most well-rounded of the show’s small cast. Her pragmatic world view and sarcastic humor keep with Loosely Exactly Nicole‘s theme of doing nothing new, but D’Angelo makes the most of something old, and in her best moments she’s not far off from a cool combination of Allison Williams in Girls and Anna Kendrick in anything. Still, even her best lines prove the show’s inherent inability to craft jokes and dialogue any more memorable than the inane lines from a depression medication commercial: “Derrick is coming to the party?” She asks of Nicole’s serial acronym abuser sleeping buddy, “Dressed as what, a short text message?” As a point of comparison, that’s the line I laughed the most at over the course of three episodes.
It’s easier to laugh at moments like that – or, in episode 2 when she bluntly tells Devin “this is the most I’ve ever liked you” when he recommends chicken parm as a pizza topping – because of Loosely Exactly Nicole‘s large gaps in humor elsewhere. Although some of the show’s sequences show potential, the payoff is consistently underwhelming.
That commercial audition in episode 1 sets up dour expectations, but the second and third episodes only compound on that problem, even though they are, overall, better than the first half hour. Episode 2 centers around Nicole debating whether Derrick (Kevin Bigley) truly likes her after he takes her out for breakfast, and pays for it, while the third focuses mainly on her failing to prioritize basic living expenses over anything else, such as getting a braid to look like Janet Jackson from Poetic Justice for a ’90s themed costume party.
The arcs of each episode end with dud-worthy revelations about being “too young” to be in a relationship at 25 and the like, making Loosely Exactly Nicole‘s inability to pay off basic plot lines as disappointing as the ones for most of its jokes. It’s most a letdown in Nicole herself, who decently tiptoes along the likable/unlikable lead character line but with no real recognizable exasperation.
Even though the show blessedly never brings up her appearance as a crutch for a joke or storyline (in that sense, there’s a very, very faint shading of Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy here), she’s supposed to be frustrated and pissed off about the lack of work in her career, but Nicole just breezily jumps between one dumpster fire audition to another, sleeps with Derrick (or “flesh formed around a really good dick”) and instigates problems in the lives of her best friends. It’s hard to get invested because she never seems invested herself.
It could be that her ease of accepting the industry’s injustice is a comment unto itself (“Maybe I can be cast as a sassy 911 operator in the next Jack Reacher film” she posits about joining Scientology), but at the end of the day it’s not very entertaining to watch. Real life Nicole’s frustrations have felt more tangibly neck-strangling in her appearances on MTV’s weirdly good comedy/therapy session Girl Code than it ever does in the opening episodes of Loosely Exactly Nicole. Her new show didn’t need to be the end-all, be-all declaration of racial injustice and body shaming in an industry widely known for these things, but a little more of an opinion on the matter could have bolstered the writing’s oppressive incapacity to stand out amid a sea of shows with nearly identical Tinder-dating, shenanigans-having, rent-lacking friends. Swipe left.