While considering the winning new Hulu comedy This Fool, the hardest question to answer is this: Who is the titular fool?
One possibility is Julio, played by comedian Chris Estrada, who borrowed aspects of his own life to co-create the show with Pat Bishop, Jake Weisman, and Matt Ingebretson. Julio is in his early thirties, still living at home in South Central L.A. with his mother Esperanza (Laura Patalano) and grandmother Maria (Julia Vera). He is in the perpetual thrall of his troublemaking ex-girlfriend Maggie (Michelle Ortiz), and is so afraid of confrontation that he will literally drive across his own lawn rather than argue with some vaguely sketchy guys whose car is blocking his driveway. As Maria notes, “If you look closely, he is always crying, a little bit.”
The other is Julio’s older cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones), an ex-gangster just out of prison and crashing on Esperanza’s couch while he puts his life back together. Luis has all the swagger that Julio lacks, and then some, but is also a man out of time (frequently quoting Austin Powers) whose bluster gets him into at least as much trouble as Julio’s cowardice.
The title likely applies to them both in different ways, but the scales are titled ever so slightly in Julio’s favor. He works at a nonprofit called Hugs Not Thugs that helps former gang members prepare to go straight. When another ex-con calls him a “punk-ass bitch,” Julio points out that the life expectancy of a gangster on average is 24 years old, “But the life expectancy of a punk-ass bitch? Seventy-six years old.”
The premiere episode of This Fool is a bit clunky as it introduces all the characters — including Michael Imperioli as Leonard Payne, the minister who runs Hugs Not Thugs — and conflicts, particularly the philosophical one between the two cousins. But once all the foundation has been laid, it displays an appealingly loopy comic sensibility that makes for a very amusing late-summer binge.
The second episode, for instance, finds Luis crossing paths with a former rival (played by Hassan Johnson, a.k.a. Wee-Bey from The Wire) and trying to assemble his old crew for a fight in the park. But he quickly finds out that many of them are either dead or reformed; the best that one of them can offer are the services of his tap-dancing, musical theater-loving middle school son, who’s excited to be living out all his West Side Story fantasies. In another, Julio’s birthday is presented as a horror movie where he can’t escape the hordes of people insistent on celebrating him getting another year older and still not sure what to do with his life.
Weisman and Ingebretson co-created and starred in Comedy Central’s sharp satire Corporate. The two series have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it crossover, but more importantly share a bit of the surreal tone that could make the earlier one so appealing. And all four This Fool creators are not afraid of going extremely lowbrow — one cousin suffers a brutal kick to the groin, while the other experiences explosive intestinal distress while on a date — so long as they find clever ways to do it. Not every joke clicks, but enough of them do to cover for the slower stretches.
The show is Estrada’s first significant acting role, and he can be rough around the edges at times, especially whenever Julio has to deliver exposition. But he and the rest of the creative team understand what’s innately funny about the character (particularly his smug certainty that he’s a better person than his cousin), and also what a good straight man Julio makes for the more reckless and outsized antics of Luis, well played by Quiñones. Imperioli, meanwhile, is extremely funny as the profane, bitter man of the cloth; he was so great at comedy on The Sopranos that it’s a shame he’s been given so few opportunities like this to do it in the years since.
Payne is used at times to comment on the innate struggles of running a nonprofit, and the income inequality that makes so many of them necessary. (Fred Armisen, who produces the show, guest stars in one episode with Eliza Coupe as reviled billionaires who consider donating to Hugs Not Thugs in an attempt to rebrand.) But the show is generally more interested in the life immediately in and around Julio’s mother’s home than in larger issues; when Esperanza has a dream about her hero Ronald Reagan, the primary subject is whether she should keep making her family use the cheap and abrasive toilet paper she brings home from her job as an industrial cleaning lady. (And in the dream, Reagan only speaks Spanish, a nice touch for a show that’s bilingual but largely leans towards English.)
And by keeping its world relatively small, This Fool quickly figures out all the things that are amusing about it. It’s frequently silly, very occasionally sweet, and promising enough that I hope Hulu lets Estrada and company make more.
Hulu is releasing the entire first season of This Fool on Aug. 12. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.