We’re in the heart of the new television season, and I’ve noticed something a little odd about it.
It’s trying to be nice.
Strange, right? For the last several years, television has been besotted with undoubtedly gripping, unbearably grim prestige TV. HBO’s Game of Thrones revels in its episodic cruelties, both physical and political. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale unfurled a bleak, dystopian landscape of religious extremism and subjugated women. Westworld examines desire and consumerism in a morally bereft theme park, and House of Cards tears down our political system with a certain, knowing glee. Everywhere you turn, prestige television attempts to psychoanalyze our culture with a parade of antiheroes and a penchant for blood.
But somewhere along the line, between political controversies and angry protests and scads of tragic disasters, both natural and manmade, I wonder whether a nameless guy in Hollywood flicked on his own television, watched The Walking Dead’s weeping protagonists decapitate a dozen zombies, and thought to himself, “Hmmm. I wonder if some of our viewers would possibly like a show that might make them … I dunno … smile?”
The next morning (after explaining what a smile was to his fellow execs) he must’ve made some traction. Because suddenly, nice, smile-worthy television is the hottest trend on the tube.
Perhaps it began last year with the blockbuster success of NBC’s This Is Us. Sure, this time-hopping drama has no shortage of sad moments and shocking twists, and I’ve heard that some fans cry pert near every episode. But This Is Us is built on nice. It gives viewers some pretty decent, pretty likable people who—albeit sometimes imperfectly—try to do what’s right and make life a little better for the people around them.
Oh, and it’s really well-crafted, too—so much so that it was nominated for 11 Emmys (including best drama) and scored a win for actor Sterling K. Brown.
Maybe ABC’s Designated Survivor had something to do with it, as well. Star Kiefer Sutherland, after spending several seasons torturing and killing people on 24, moved into the Oval Office and now plays a good, principled president surrounded by a good, principled staff doing their level best for the American people—a House of Cards turned on its cardboard head.
Whatever the case, we’ve already seen some surprisingly optimistic shows take root and draw viewers this season—a couple of which seem to purposefully subvert some of television’s recent cultural narratives.
ABC’s The Good Doctor focuses on a protagonist who’s just that: A good doctor. Dr. Shaun Murphy may deal with Asperger’s, but every bone in his neurotic body is attuned to the care of his patients. Not only does he save lives, but he seems, in his own quirky way, to make the doctors around him better, too. Not just better doctors, but better people. Remember House, that crotchety ol’ doc on Fox who saved lives but seemed to hate everyone around him? Yeah, Shaun’s the anti-House—a guy who might not understand the people he interacts with, but cares for them all the same.
Young Sheldon, a sitcom on CBS, offers a twist on another caustic character: The Sheldon we see on The Big Bang Theory is an arrogant, neurotic, often snide and very occasionally sweet theoretical physicist. His 9-year-old doppelganger puts the breaks on the snide and amps up the sweet. The show gives us an unusual-but-caring little man-boy who struggles to make sense of high school as his family—particularly his mother—care for him the best way they know how.
They’re very different shows, obviously, and yet as Salon’s Melanie McFarland notes, they share something in common: “Separately these are underdog stories about two people striving dauntlessly in a world determined to bury them and pass them over, who nevertheless are guided by heart.”
And that’s what these shows have, too: heart. They’re written not so much for the brain as for the gut. In a world that seems unremittingly filled with bad news, these seem designed to offer a little respite—a half-hour or hour-long escape that, for many viewers, is very much welcome. And the ratings bear that out. Take a look at Nielsen’s latest broadcast ratings, and you find that Young Sheldon, This Is Us and The Good Doctor all are in the top 10. Young Sheldon was, in fact, the biggest premiere comedy in the last four years.
To be a nice television show is, perhaps, no longer the backhanded compliment it once was. Seems that those in the business are finding that a show can be nice and good and successful, all at the same time.
An important caveat: These shows may be nice, but they are not perfect. Far from it. They may not be suitable for you or your family, and you should always check out Plugged In before sitting down to watch. But when compared to some of the grim, bloody fare that television has wallowed in over the last several years, these shows can feel like a little, welcome ray of sunshine. Nice, isn’t it?