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MTV’s ‘Loosely Exactly Nicole’ has a lot of room to grow

Loosely Exactly Nicole's Nicole Byer

In a month that’s delivering Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” on FX, Issa Rae’s highly anticipated “Insecure” on HBO and Ava Duvernay’s “Queen Sugar” on OWN, it might be easy to overlook MTV’s “Loosely Exactly Nicole” — and so far, “Nicole” doesn’t seem interested in joining that high-profile group.

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With several new projects from talented people of color, the hope is to continue the trend of work created by and for underrepresented voices in media: “Atlanta” boasts an entirely black writers’ room and a uniquely personal storyline, “Queen Sugar’s” episodes are directed entirely by a roster of women and “Insecure” aims to chronicle the journey of a young black woman finding her confidence.

Two episodes into “Loosely Exactly,” by comparison, Nicole is still the only black person in the show. Like, the only one — we have yet to spot even an extra or day-player of color. Not that black women don’t claim circles of mostly — or in this case — all white friends, it’s common. But for a television show centered on a woman who looks nothing like the majority of lead characters, it does seem to play into mainstream tropes we know all too well: Portraying a person as a pop of color in an all-white world is something we mostly left behind in the late 2000s.

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Comedian Nicole Byer’s lead is, of course based — loosely, if not exactly — on and inspired by her real life, which makes this choice (if it is one) a lot more interesting: As a working actor and comedian, neither the fictional Nicole nor the Nicole playing her seem shy about playing into “sassy best friend” stereotypes that many other actors are intent on escaping.

While MTV has an admirable reputation with its scripted shows — “Teen Wolf,” “Faking It” and the first seasons of “Awkward” are all justifiably beloved — the juxtaposition of “Loosely Exactly Nicole” with pale “Broad City” also-ran “Mary + Jane” may raise some eyebrows:

Is “Nicole” playing the long game, moving toward less hacky territory, or is the show we’re looking at the show we’re meant to see? And if so, it’s still in its early days: Could the show improve on itself, even if not by original design?

Jen D'Angelo, Nicole Byer and Jacob Wysocki in Loosely Exactly Nicole
Devin (Jacob Wysocki), Nicole (Byer) and Veronica (Jen D’Angelo).

In the first episode of the series, “Babysitting,” Nicole struggles to find an audition she feels can successfully land her a high-paying acting gig. Discussing the industry with her best friends Veronica and Devin — the angel and devil on her shoulders, for now — one of them goes into detail about the negative aspects of the business, saying she’s long since abandoned the dream, citing the rejection and uncertainty involved.

“Rejection and uncertainty fit into my lifestyle,” Nicole affirms confidently.

It’s that hopeful confidence that drives her character through the bumps of her daily grind, and it’s encouraging to watch: Nicole is afraid of nothing. She’ll run headfirst toward her problems with whatever solution sounds best at the time, and she’ll do it aiming for the best outcome on the first try.

After acquiring a login for an audition site, she proclaims excitedly to hookup Derrick (Kevin Bigley), mid-makeout, “I’m gonna get cast as Emma Stone’s black best friend in a rom-com!” This is followed by an over-the-top impression of what that script might be like, which is at least as cringeworthy as it’s intended to be … If not vastly moreso.

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While Veronica urges Nicole not to audition for the role of “a hooker named Big Butt Bertha who is as wide as she is horny,” the hapless Nicole is already determined that it’s a perfect fit. She asks her young babysitting charge Troy to help her run her lines, which means going full-out as the script’s pimp character. As he struggles to say the scripted n-word, Nicole insists Troy just say it: After all, she says with a straight face, “Taiwanese people are the black people of Asia!”

Later, Nicole finds an audition for a depression drug commercial. The only catch is that she needs to have a son, which is when Nicole decides to bring trusty little Troy along … In blackface.

While Nicole nevertheless charms the casting directors, she doesn’t land the spot — and in the episode’s high point, the casting director levels with her: “You’re not doing anything wrong.”

Nicole is using all the tools and talent she’s got: Just not in the right place. The director aims her at a comedy agent, and she’s right back up again, with no time to care when Troy gets in trouble for repeating his pimp monologue in front of his mom, or is sent to counseling because of it. She’s finally on her way to stardom.

Loosely Exactly Nicole's Nicole Byer
Nicole remains unstoppable in the face of any twist of fortune — no matter how weird or regrettable.

The second episode, “Breakfast with Derrick,” which aired September 12, opens with another chat between Nicole and her friends, this time about her desire to score a role as a “sassy 9-1-1 operator.” But the ambivalence is creeping in, as Nicole finds herself more and more excited about things she isn’t really sure she wants; squealing just as loudly about taking her regular hookup to the next level, about whom she is no more convinced.

Thriving off the uncertainty of life, too easily taking the advice of anyone willing to give it, chasing leads down all kinds of directionless paths that end in uncomfortable compromises, you can’t help but root for Nicole. She’s strong, unapologetic, funny and unafraid. But with its embrace of blackface, and stereotypically racist tropes, the show’s desire for edginess on the road to success gets in Nicole’s way as much as anything her life itself throws at her.

Loosely and exactly, Nicole is a hero in training, still tripping over her cape. We can only hope she’ll learn to fly before the rougher stuff drags her down.

“Loosely Exactly Nicole” airs Mondays at 10:30/9:30 ET/PT on MTV.

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