When it comes to conjuring sitcoms that stick around, Melissa Joan Hart has that magic touch. After spending her high school years starring in Nickelodeon’s “Clarissa Explains It All,” the actress graduated to “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” where with a flick of her finger she shot to stardom as the exuberant center of one of the ’90s most iconic shows.
Those roles in her rearview, Hart has in recent years shifted nimbly across the kitchen table.
On ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey,” she took parenting for a spin, starring as a party-girl-turned-politician forced to raise her sister’s kids. It was Hart’s first sitcom since becoming a mother of three herself. Now, with Netflix’s “No Good Nick” (10 episodes arrive Monday), she’s staying true to life as Liz, a married mother of two whose family life is upended by the arrival of 13-year-old Nick (Siena Agudong), purporting to be a long-lost relative but in reality out to con the clan.
“It’s a character I haven’t played before, and it’s a show I haven’t seen before,” says Hart, now 42. “As you go episode by episode, you peel back the layers and learn more about why this girl is scamming this family, this seemingly innocent family she’s out to get. And as you watch this adorable, charming little girl do these awful things to this family, somehow you kind of justify it.”
The show riffs on sitcom structure, Nick’s sinister motives emerging around lighter-hearted story lines where she goes to school with Liz’s daughter Molly (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) and bonds with good-natured dad Ed (Sean Astin). Hart sees its slightly darker tone as proof the genre is not just alive but flourishing again.
“When ‘Melissa & Joey’ came around [in 2010], the sitcom was failing,” says Hart. A veteran after “Clarissa” and “Sabrina,” Hart suspected it was just a matter of striking the right tone. Her production company Hartbreak brought TV movie “My Fake Fiancé” to ABC Family; it was such a hit the network offered her and costar Joey Lawrence their own show, which premiered to strong numbers.
“It was a time when politics was so serious, and the world so polarized,” she says. “But everyone likes to go bed laughing, you know?”
After “Melissa & Joey” ended in 2015, Hart was torn between wanting to keep making family-focused shows and knowing TV was changing. Comedy had embraced the plot twist, from “The Good Place” to “Search Party,” and more traditional sitcoms, like “Black-ish” and the revamped “One Day at a Time,” were boldly grappling with identity politics, to great acclaim. (When Netflix unceremoniously axed “One Day at a Time” last month, the ensuing backlash was fierce enough to serve as a separate metric of its cultural relevance.) Unexpectedly, Netflix offered a solution, offering Hart a series that would mirror modern TV’s ambitious nature with a serialized mystery plotline, while exploring how bread-and-butter family values persevere today.
Both Hart and Astin — he’d worked with Netflix before, playing another father figure on “Stranger Things” — say what sold them was this double dose of interest in modern family.
“The universe roots for people who try to do the right thing,” says Astin by phone. “But family is hard, because the world is hard right now. Even though this family is clearly challenged, and none of them are ‘good’ all the time, you still want them to be OK.” That resonated with Astin as a father of three who’d bonded with his daughters — now old enough to have their own stressors complicate the family dynamic — over NBC sitcoms like “Friends” and “Will & Grace,” both now streaming on (you guessed it) Netflix. “No Good Nick,” he explains, reflects one household, like his, still working through its flaws.
“It’s something you can feel comfortable watching that’s at the same time pulling on issues that are not so comfortable,” adds the actor, 48. If there’s a better definition of a family show in 2019, he hasn’t heard it.
Hart describes “No Good Nick” as “natural” in depicting its characters and their daily lives. Both parents hold down demanding jobs, the kids struggle as much with social media as schoolwork, and tensions aren’t always tidily resolved by episode’s end. “It’s not a laugh-out-loud, or even necessarily a ‘feel-good’ comedy,” she explains. “It’s a family going through what families go through.”
At least 10 more episodes are getting made, but Hart expects “No Good Nick” to last much longer. “It’s the perfect time for something like this,” she says. Given the star’s history of bewitching viewers, the show certainly couldn’t be starting out with a better good-luck charm.
NO GOOD NICK
Starring Melissa Joan Hart, Sean Astin, Siena Agudong, Kalama Epstein, Lauren Lindsey Donzis. Streams April 15 on Netflix.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.