Critic's Notebook: An Ode to 2019's Sweet TV Dopes

Colleen Hayes/NBC

This year, shows like 'The Good Place' and 'Superstore' found their emotional anchors in kindhearted but simple-minded bros who provided a welcome respite from dour antiheroism and toxic masculinity.

On his wedding day, The Good Place's Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) wears a backwards cap and sneakers, tears the sleeves off his tuxedo to render the ensemble more authentically him and shimmies toward the nuptial arch while a bass-heavy EDM cover of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" pounds in the background. With his buttercream bride (D'arcy Carden) standing before him, he recites a poem of own his devising: "Janet, my digital queen / Janet, we can dare to dream / Send nude pics of your heart to me / Jacksonville Jaguars RULE!"

His betrothed — a genderless, omniscient being neither deity nor robot — speaks of his overarching kindness. He responds to his "I do's" with "Yeah!" and "Tight." They kiss, cementing their beautifully demented romance.

A dimwitted petty criminal with a penchant for Blake Bortles and Molotov cocktails, Jason is, bizarrely, also the heart of The Good Place. NBC's philosophical fantasy comedy is a convoluted joke machine of a show, one that I love to watch for its clever contortions but that ultimately inspires little sentiment in me. (Like with Community, I've never bought the idea that any of the protagonists could actually end up as friends.) It's difficult to remember the plot's varying twists and turns, so Jason remains my emotional anchor from episode to episode — a credit to Jacinto's happy-go-lucky, childlike performance. The character's innocent smile and clueless non-sequiturs continuously remind me what he and his friends are fighting for: a chance at happiness in the afterlife.

Jason may be the sweetest dope among a diverse array of sweet dopes who added lightness and levity to TV programs this year, including Superstore, The Other Two, Shrill, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and others. The stock character is a study in contradictions: a selfish but eager-to-please man-child; a dumb-dumb with a heart of gold; and an unsung hero whose inherent tenderness eventually touches the heart of a cold or neurotic love interest. (Think of Parks and Recreation's carefree Andy Dwyer as the apotheosis of the archetype.) As Peak TV further embraces dark antiheroes — and as society continues to reckon with the consequences of toxic masculinity post-#MeToo — these adorable/ridiculous supporting characters sprinkle a little hope back into our souls.

They are striving, hopeful and gentle, often brimming with (half-assed) ideas, but are not-so-hot on the execution. The sweet dope is often both comic relief and underdog romantic lead, standing in contrast to cynical or snakelike rivals. In their best moments, they're about as cerebral as a spoon but can be as heartwarming as Baby Yoda.

The sweet dope's primary raison d'être is to help cut a show's acidic hyper-intellectualism with a dose of weirdo amiability. On the most recent episode of The Good Place, the group schemes to restore Chidi's (William Jackson Harper) memory so he can come up with the answer to the meaning of life and help them protect the fate of human existence. (You know, a regular Thursday.) While fallen demon Michael (Ted Danson) works to meticulously piece back together every single permutation of Chidi's infinite reboots in the afterlife, poor Jason threatens the proceedings by accidentally spilling his drink, a horrifying concoction made from Midori, Coffee-mate and ditch water.

On Superstore, there's nary a scene that can't be brightened by the gross-cute one-liners of pathetic warehouse supervisor Marcus (Jon Barinholtz), a man who thinks "bed sheets are for losers," or Cheyenne's infantile wanksta husband Bo (Johnny Pemberton), who once bragged at a job interview, "Yo, and I roll the fattest J's, so…" The big box store-set sitcom is a spiritual sequel to The Office, but its smart and timely dissection of class, race, labor and immigration issues sets it apart from its early-aughts predecessor.

Yet, while other characters grapple with the dangers of organizing a union or living undocumented in the U.S., these clownish dinguses consistently delight us with their revoltingly lovable personae. Marcus, in fact, once caused my normally stoic husband to yelp, "Ew!" at the TV screen when the character admitted he prefers "found milk." "You know, a mom leaves a bottle on a table at a food court and you figure she's okay with people taking a little off the top."

Sweet dopes often tenderize big egos and calm overwhelming nerves. One of the best songs from the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, "A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes," features a sequence in which Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) fantasizes that her doofy crush Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) isn’t just good-natured, but a licensed mental health counselor who's going to solve all her deep-seated psychological problems. And Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's tousle-haired townie Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) may not have magical powers or understand the Satanist culture his ex-girlfriend has committed to, but his moral sense often ends up a beacon of light for vacillating Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) to cling to.

On Comedy Central's The Other Two, as self-centered Brooke (Helene Yorke) contends with her own expiration date as a culturally relevant member of the zeitgeist, she realizes too late that her simple-minded ex Lance (Josh Segarra) isn’t just a human sex toy who loves LEGO Ninjago. He's also charming and big-hearted and has too much self-respect to get back together with someone who doesn't appreciate him. Harley Quinn's optimistic D-list villain Kite-Man (Matt Oberg), SMILF's gentle baby daddy Rafi (Miguel Gomez), Shrill's man-baby-sorta-boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) and Parks and Rec's naïf Andy (Chris Pratt) are also especially adept at connecting with distrustful women much smarter than they are.

These men tend to have big dreams: Lance aspires to be sneaker designer; Andy imagines himself a rock star; Ryan thinks he's going to be the next great podcaster; Bo brands himself a white rapper; Jason calls himself a "pre-successful" DJ; and Harvey hopes to run away from his coal mining hometown to become an illustrator. The problem is, these fellas can't do very much on their own. And the question of whether they have the brains, talent or drive to pull off their goals ends up becoming a barrier for many of their relationships.

Ultimately, we owe a debt of gratitude to the OG sweet dope: Sex and the City's Steve Brady (David Eigenberg), who's dewy, regular-guy allure seduces even Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), the show's hardest-hearted egomaniac. The flirtatious and bespectacled bartender was originally supposed to be a one-night stand for Miranda, and despite their disparities in class, income, ambitions and education, they end up lovingly married by the end of the series. Steve was the loveable foil to Carrie Bradshaw's selfish, narcissistic and womanizing true love Mr. Big (Chris Noth).

When raging leads like Barry's Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) or Succession's Logan Roy (Brian Cox) curdle our blood, it's comforting to be able to return to the guileless dudes who can make us laugh or swoon. So let's raise a glass of eggnog to the unexpected charmers who try hard, love harder and never let us forget the Jacksonville Jaguars rule.