In the brief opening credits for MTV’s bubbly new half-hour comedy Loosely Exactly Nicole, comedian Nicole Byer smiles sweetly for the camera. Then her face drops and her eyes roll, and the camera swings down to take in the junk-strewn coffee table in front of her as she swipes a slice of pizza from a half-empty box. The sequence is a good visual metaphor for the arc of the show’s first season, in which the character Nicole — a greener version of the actress who plays her — finds success only when she finds her voice.
Loosely Exactly Nicole, which premiered in early September, is the latest half-hour comedy based on the early career of a now-successful actor/comedian. Nicole is a decadent, thrill-seeking, sexually confident woman trying to make it in Hollywood — or at least the outskirts. She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her roommate Devin (Jacob Wysocki), babysits to make cash, and dreams of her future role as “Emma Stone’s black best friend in a rom-com. ‘I’ll finish this presentation, Maddie, you go get your man!’”
We’ve seen Byer’s bad-girl shtick before on TV, from Lena Dunham to Amy Schumer to Ilana Glazer. But the female fuckup on TV has too often felt like the province of white privilege, and Byer happens to be a full-figured black woman. The show addresses race and gender with a light but sharp touch. As a working actor, Nicole knows what casting directors see when they look at her. In the second episode, she imagines getting a part “as a sassy 911 operator” on the next Jack Reacher movie: “911, what’s your emergency? Woo, there’s a bomb where? Aw, hell to the naw!” In an upcoming episode based on a sketch Byer wrote three years ago for UCB Comedy called “Be Blacker,” Nicole auditions for the role of “restless leg sufferer.” The woman running the audition, who is white, keeps pushing her to make each take “blacker.” She asks for variations on the stereotype: “Church lady black,” “Oprah black.” Nicole gamely delivers.
To my mind, her jaunty, unapologetic pursuit of the finer things has much in common with Aziz Ansari, another American-born visible minority who fits right in with his country’s culture of excess. “I thought of a drinking game: Every time you buy me a shot, I drink it,” Nicole tells one man, a line that could have come right out of Tom Haverford’s mouth.
Nicole’s game-for-anything quality also recalls the eponymous protagonist of the Amazon original Fleabag , written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Both are sexually aggressive women who seem to share a more intimate bond with the audience than with any one man. Fleabag’s frequent comments and winks at the camera make this connection more explicit, but the opening credits of Loosely Exactly Nicole suggest we’re about to be let in on the real Nicole, not the happy face she presents to auditions and first dates.
Over its six episodes, Fleabag hints at the reason for its protagonist’s addiction to the drama of sex, which is slyly revealed in the final installment. But Nicole isn’t trying to fuck away some deep-seated pain; she’s just being herself. When she toys around with the sand garden sitting on her agent’s desk, she naturally ends up drawing a penis (later, when she’s upset, she draws a flaccid one). When a cop pulls her over for running through a stop sign, she hits on him. She’s perfectly happy to maintain a casual relationship with a man named Derrick (Kevin Bigley), informing Devin and her conservative best friend, Veronica (Jen D’Angelo), that she’ll pursue a serious relationship “when I’ve sampled all 31 flavors of dick.”
And Nicole has no problem attracting the attention of men. We see more of Derrick’s body than we do of hers; one episode opens on a close-up of his ass, clad only in underwear. Derrick is also notably thin and white, as are all of Nicole’s paramours, and it’s a powerful sight to watch her bed these eager little white men offering up their bodies for her pleasure.
As the show goes on, the stakes are raised: Nicole has student loan debt, and questions whether to keep at her dream after two years of unsuccessful auditions. Devin and Veronica represent those competing impulses, with Veronica begging her to be practical while Devin urges her to believe in her talent.
In the first episode, after yet another failed audition, a kind casting director tells Nicole she’s not doing anything wrong; she’s just not right for this particular role. It takes a few sputtering false starts before Nicole gets her career off the ground, but she learns to use whatever she’s got to get what she wants on her own terms. In Nicole’s world, “shameless” isn’t an insult; it’s an asset.
Loosely Exactly Nicole airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on MTV.