Nicholas is not someone who should be charged with caring for the well-being of children. Possibly not even a small, nigh-indestructible pet. Even the people who like Nicholas can tell within seconds of meeting him that this twentysomething is an inveterate narcissist with little to no awareness of the needs, feelings, or even existence of others. Flirting at a bar with cute guy Alex, Nicholas insists they have a connection. “I’ve barely spoken,” Alex replies. “I think any feelings you think you have for me are actually feelings you have for your own anecdotes.”
But as Freeform’s excellent, warm-hearted new dramedy Everything’s Gonna Be Okay unfolds, circumstances force Nicholas (Josh Thomas) to think beyond himself, as he becomes guardian to his teenage half-sisters Matilda (Kayla Cromer) and Genevieve (Maeve Press) after their wealthy father Darren (Christopher May) dies of cancer.
It’s a concept as old as time, told with specificity, smarts, and sincerity by Thomas, the Australian comedian who previously created and starred in the comedy Please Like Me. (You may have seen that show on Pivot, if you’d heard of Pivot. RIP, Pivot.) And in Cromer and Press, it features two of the best and most natural kid performances in recent TV memory.
Freeform tends to toggle between sweet shows that evoke the best of the WB from the 2000s (RIP, WB) and more unapologetically soapy melodrama. Like its recent offerings Bunheads, The Fosters, and Good Trouble, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is much more in the former camp, that Gilmore Girls-ish mold of balancing banter and bawling, as Nicholas, the girls, and Alex (Adam Faison) adjust to their unexpected new circumstances.
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There’s some fumbling in the hourlong debut (ensuing episodes are a half-hour, and pack a lot into that time) as Nicholas, Matilda, and Genevieve learn about Darren’s condition and his impending demise. The scene where the girls are told, for instance, jumps way too quickly from their devastation to Genevieve’s understandable dislike of Nicholas, whom she knows only from his occasional visits to their palatial Los Angeles home. And once we jump ahead to Darren’s funeral, Nicholas and the girls still act like relative strangers to each other, even though they likely would have just gone through a period of intense bonding.
But once we get into the core idea of the show, this messiness becomes a virtue. Nicholas is not fundamentally built to be anyone’s guardian, and his new charges present distinct challenges from one another: Matilda has high-functioning autism, while Genevieve is, well, a moody teenage girl who goes through life with her gaze averted whenever possible. Nicholas doesn’t really know what he’s doing with them — nor with Alex, with whom he endures (and frequently causes) many ups and downs in their relationship — and his struggle to come up with solutions that make sense to him is a lot of the fun of the series. In one episode, for instance, he confiscates a bottle of peach schnapps one of Genevieve’s friends brought to her birthday party, but then lets Matilda get drunk with it — under his close personal supervision — so that she’ll be better prepared for when alcohol is freely available in college. Though Thomas is the creator, Nicholas isn’t treated as infallible; both the drinking subplot and a later story where Matilda explores her sexuality acknowledge both that he’s flying blind and that problems can have more nuance than they seem to at first. Even grief itself is presented as an unpredictable roller coaster, full of as many laughs as tears. (In an early episode, Nicholas and Alex are cuddling, and a devastated Nicholas asks, “Wait, my crying gave you an erection?”)
Thomas is also aware that his fictional alter ego can be a whole lot to take. Nicholas is funny and has some talent, but the other characters get to call him out on his nonsense early and often, and their personas are all much more natural and more subdued than his. And both Kromer (who is on the autism spectrum herself) and Press give deeply appealing, magnetic performances, turning familiar material — Matilda has an unrequited crush, Genevieve gets embarrassed in class — into something that feels unique to them and only them. They all muddle through together in ways that feel honest and sympathetic, even as they keep messing up.
So, no, Nicholas probably shouldn’t be taking care of his siblings. But he is, and the result is a terrific addition to the new year in TV.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay debuts January 16th on Freeform. I’ve seen six episodes.