Nikki is all about following your dreams. Nikki is all about following her dreams. Nikki is Nikki White, a Las Vegas dancer played by Nikki Cox, who got her start in the WB sitcom Unhappily Ever After. A WB sitcom normally wouldn’t boost a resume much, but Cox has two things going for her and no, I’m not about to make the obvious joke. Granted, she’s sexy, and Nikki relishes the opportunity to dress up its attractive star in green bikinis and other high-cut showgirl outfits, but what Cox really has going for her are a likeable screen presence and a snappy comic delivery. When she’s about to deliver a line, you can almost see her eyes glitter. Cox had a stint on The Drew Carey Show (also executive-produced by Bruce Helford and Deborah Oppenheimer) as Drew’s cousin, and watching Nikki, I occasionally wondered what she would be like on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, free of a script.
Not that Nikki‘s writing is bad. It’s not breathtakingly original, but it’s not groaningly awful, either. And it’s a sitcom with a potentially interesting premise: a young married couple pursues their dreams, but said dreams are frowned upon by conventional society. At a time when CEOs and stock-market players are lionized in print media, and network TV is full of shows about noble doctors (Gideon’s Crossing, ER), idealistic lawyers (The Practice, Family Law), and good-looking executives (The $treet), it’s somewhat refreshing to meet two characters who want to be a professional wrestler and a dancer. Nick von Esmarch, playing Nikki’s husband Dwight, has a goofy, naive charm that suits his goofy, naive character. And both Nikki and Dwight seem like people you’d be willing to invite into your home for half an hour not a quality to underestimate, I realized after watching the first two episodes of this season’s Friends and feeling, after they were over, glad to be away from that bunch of screeching narcissists.
Still, Nikki isn’t exactly in a position to thrive: a WB sitcom opposite Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is facing long odds no matter what kind of body its star has. But like Cox herself, the show is much smarter than you’d originally assume. While it is supposedly all about following your dreams, whatever they may be, in truth, it’s an examination of a sitcom staple turned on its head the married couple where the wife dominates the husband. Traditionally this arrangement is presented as detrimental, if not to the marriage, then to the husband’s happiness: the wife is loud and the husband “henpecked.” Think of Roseanne, where Dan Conner became more miserable with each passing season, or Everybody Loves Raymond, where Patricia Heaton’s character, Debra, can best be described as a shrew. Marriage, sitcom-style, is happiest when the husband takes the dominant role, a precedent established back in the 1950s by Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Nikki, by contrast, presents a marriage where Nikki leads and Dwight happily follows: it’s her idea to “follow their dreams.” In doing so, it raises, and tries to answer, questions about Dwight’s masculinity: if he’s the acquiescent partner, is he still a man?
While the show is supposedly all about Nikki her name is the title, after all she’s a less complicated character than Dwight. And the show actually revolves around his conflicts and Nikki’s solutions to them. In the first episode, Nikki and Dwight flash back to their meeting: he was about to drive to Pepperdine University, planning to major in corporate tax law; she, a stranger who crashed his going-away party, charmed him into giving her a lift to Las Vegas. Why Pepperdine? It’s not entirely clear, but the writers who named Nikki and her dance troupe the “Golden Calf Dancers” probably know what they’re doing. It might be that “Pepperdine” is a subtle dig at Kenneth Starr and his brand of conservatism; clearly the freewheeling, potty-mouthed Nikki is no ideal for them. In the flashback, Dwight is fighting his own conservative inclinations: it’s obvious that Dwight’s mother Marion (Christine Estabrook) is the driving force behind the corporate-tax-law career plan, and it takes Nikki two lines of dialogue to learn that Dwight’s real ambition is to become a professional wrestler. In less time than you can say, “Throw caution to the wind,” she’s convinced him to give up college. Two years later, the two are living in Vegas, happily married, and he’s been accepted to a wrestling training camp.
Naturally, Marion objects: “I’m not saying give up your dreams. Just do what everyone else does and push them way down deep inside you.” And thus the essential conflict is set up: Nikki vs. Marion over Dwight’s ambitions. Dwight is, before he meets Nikki, a “mama’s boy”; he had even quit his beloved wrestling at his mother’s insistence after breaking his nose. Thus, in allying himself with Nikki, Dwight asserts himself as a grown-up, heterosexual male breaking a too-strong mother-son bond. By presenting “mama’s boy” as the alternative, the show de-emphasizes Nikki’s dominant role in her relationship with Dwight. It’s harder to call him “henpecked” when his wife is encouraging him to stand up for himself against his mother. She also introduces him to heterosexuality. In the first episode, he asks how she guessed he was a virgin, wondering aloud, whether it’s “that I’m not jumping on you just ‘cause you’re here? Because I’m a gentleman?” Nikki replies, “Ooh! Gay!” He is, of course, simply shy. But the inverted sexual and gender roles don’t return to “normal” after she deflowers him: Nikki consistently makes the sexual advances, not Dwight. Even Nikki’s dances put her in “masculine” costumes: she’s dressed as Godzilla for one number, as a prison guard for another. Dwight, meanwhile, always shows up backstage with flowers and supportive words. It’s much like Lucy congratulating Ricky on his band’s performances, only now Lucy is the husband, Ricky the wife.
Meanwhile, working in professional wrestling, Dwight constantly faces questions about his masculinity and his heterosexuality. He cringes when he thinks his wrestling coach is about to start yelling: “It’s that thing coaches do: you get real quiet, then you yell and call us ‘ladies.’” The coach responds by threatening to kiss him, asking “Isn’t that scarier?” Dwight eventually becomes more comfortable with wrestling and embraces his wrestling character, “The Crybaby,” even going so far as to carry a teddy bear into the ring but only after Nikki performs an embarrassing role which demands that she sing a really awful song on stage first. Again, she encourages his ambition by setting the example in her own professional life.
Unfortunately, once Nikki stops focusing on Nikki and Dwight’s relationship, it doesn’t have many other places to go. Marion is a weak, one-note character, and we’ve seen only glimpses of the couple’s friends, such as Nikki’s fellow dancers Mary (Susan Egan) and Luna (Marina Benedict). Mary and Luna are, so far, stereotypes: the older, wiser dancer with smart-aleck comments and the ditzy blonde with a taste for money. Cox, Egan, and Benedict have all trained as dancers, and Egan has a strong Broadway background (she originated the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast), so we can hope for more elaborately choreographed dance numbers; but even if the show continues to open each episode with a dance routine (the campier the better), it will suffer if it continues to neglect character interaction and development. If Nikki stays true to its primary plotline Nikki reaching for the stars and encouraging Dwight to do the same it will remain more than just another cute sitcom about a sexy chick and her onscreen love interest: the continued playing with inverted gender and sexual roles will be interesting to watch. But if it wants to be a good comedy, as opposed to simply a pleasant and intriguing one, then it will need to look beyond Nikki and Dwight to make every character on screen worth watching.