About three years ago, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich took note of a budding movie trend, spurred on by the encouraging words of an affable brown bear: “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Living your life by whatever Paddington says is as worthy a religion as any, but this particular profundity hit home even more in the dark days of Trump. While reality grew colder, certain pieces of pop culture offered a warm hug, and the nicecore movement was born.
Now, as the world awaits Paddington’s return (make it happen), a small boy sporting bear ears is doing what he can to keep the spirit of Peru’s greatest export alive. In Fox’s new animated comedy, “The Great North,” Moon, an oddly named 10-year-old in a family of abnormally named men, may not be the next Paddington (as if one could ever exist), but his furry little cub pajamas represent a similar transition for TV, one that’s been creeping up for at least a decade and may be peaking while Trump’s presidency (and the pandemic) die slow, prolonged deaths.
Nice TV isn’t exactly new. As The New York Times’ critic James Poniewozik recently pointed out, so many hits in the prestige TV era have been praised for subverting decades of television where niceness equated to make-believe. Sitcoms, with their laugh tracks and loopy staging, were inauthentic to the point of being ineffectual. Dramas skewed overly melodramatic (daytime soaps) or unbelievably positive (nighttime procedurals). TV was too safe, too aspirational, and too unrealistic, its sugary kindness boiling over into saccharine futility. So when shows like “The Simpsons,” popped up, highlighting the relatable yet rarely shown frustrations of family life via acerbic satire, it matched the moody, iconoclastic currents of the ’90s and 2000s.
As “Bob’s Burgers” first flipped its pun-tastic patties, the dark-and-gritty trend was still thriving, and viewers would be forgiven for seeing Loren Bouchard’s buoyant sitcom as nothing more than another “Simpsons” knock-off from the Fox assembly line. After all, here was another animated comedy centered around a lower-middle class family, with a grumpy dad, nasal-voiced mom, and three incorrigible kids. “Simpsons” clones were the network’s preferred template, especially after “Family Guy” became a mega-hit with its rapid pop culture references and outwardly edgy comedy.
But where “Family Guy” zigged into the darker corners of adult animation, “Bob’s Burgers” zagged toward the light. Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) wasn’t trying to strangle his son Gene (Eugene Merman); he was trying to understand him. The family wasn’t pulled apart by unwanted responsibilities and financial hardships; they were united, working together in their seaside restaurant and living in pseudo-harmony above it. Plus, the Belchers really like each other. The Simpsons love each other, sure, but they don’t wear it on their sleeve. Their bickering drives a lot of the conflict and the comedy. (“Marge is mad at me,” “Bart got in trouble again.”) The Belchers veer into that territory, too, but they’re mainly just trying to have a good time.
Courtesy of Fox
Today, “Bob’s Burgers” is an elite animated comedy. Hugely re-watchable, decorated by awards, and with a movie on the way, the Fox comedy long ago emerged from “The Simpsons'” shadow and stands as its own beautiful tentpole — a nicecore early adopter, if you will. So it’s only fitting that Fox create a few series under its colorful draping, starting with “The Great North.” While the network’s recent animated originals like “Duncanville” and “Bless the Harts” skew closer to “The Simpsons” model — family squabbles, long-suffering characters, caustic humor — its latest entry (from “Bob’s Burgers” writers Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, as well as “Regular Show’s” Minty Lewis) is right in line with “Bob’s” kinder, supportive outlook on family life. (Bouchard is also an executive producer.)
Set in Alaska and proud of it, “The Great North” centers on a close-knit family of fishermen. Nick Offerman lends his butter-smooth machismo to Beef, a single father of four who’s notably not the series’ de facto lead. That honor goes to Judy (Jenny Slate), the only daughter in the Tobin clan, but not its only awkward dreamer. Wolf (Will Forte) has aspirations of using the family fishing boat as a tourist attraction, Ham (Paul Rust) is the town’s official cake baker, and even little Moon (Aparna Nancherla) must have his own unique aspirations, given he’s never without his snug bear ensemble.
In another show, all these different interests would cause friction. Beef would have to adjust to his daughter’s dreams of taking photographs, or his eldest son’s plans to expand the business, or his middle son’s enthusiasm for pastries. Instead, “The Great North” shows nothing but support. When Ham comes out to his family in the pilot, their response is a collective shrug: He’d told them already, a bunch of times, and they love him exactly the same. The conflict stems from trying to understand each other — with earnestness, not frustration. When the kids try to bribe their father into dating again, he doesn’t throw up a wall, tell them it’s none of their business, and discipline his overstepping children. He listens to them, hears how badly they want this for him, and then tries to put himself out there for his own benefit, as much as theirs.
Courtesy of Fox
Die-hard “Bob’s Burgers” fans may be irked by just how similar the two shows appear at the onset. Family business? Check. Quirky seaside community? Check. Youngest child wearing a permanent set of animal ears? Check. But after six episodes, the distinctions add up. Judy isn’t the perfect lead just yet (her confessionals to a mystical Alanis Morissette in the sky feel misaligned with the show’s earthbound tone), but her presence at the front of the show does wonders for its perspective (as do the three female creators). The deep blues and rich browns in the series’ color palette foster a cozy wintertime environment you want to build a fire around. And “The Great North” is the only animated Fox comedy with a Black family member. (Honeybee, voiced by Dulcé Sloan, is Wolf’s movie-loving wife from California and, while she’s mainly an audience proxy so far, she’s primed to be the lovable big city foil to this isolated small town family.)
Still, it’s not the superficial links that make “The Great North” a worthy successor to “Bob’s Burgers”; it’s their shared sense of compassion. TV has seen a surge of nicecore success stories over the last year and change. “Ted Lasso” steals all the headlines (which I have no real problem with), but there’s also “The Baby-Sitters’ Club” and “All Creatures Great and Small,” not to mention earlier staples of warmth and positivity like the “One Day at a Time” reboot and John Mulaney’s “Sack Lunch Bunch” special.
Nice stories have always existed on TV, whether you’re a Gen Z kid looking back on “Parks and Rec” or a boomer with fond memories of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” In a world fraught from the pandemic to politics, we just need them a little bit more, so it’s nice to see adult animation expanding accordingly. There will still be plenty of shows deriving laughs from mockery, physical comedy, and stupidity — fundamental jokes for a genre long worshipped by the college crowd — but there’s also room for shows with more wholesome intentions; where it’s not about getting a laugh at any cost, it’s about being nice, encouraging empathy, and believing the world is a better place for doing both.
“The Great North” premieres Sunday, February 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET on Fox.