Need a laugh? Unfortunately, it’s a fallow time for small-screen comedy, as concurrent SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes have put Hollywood productions on hold. Late-night shows and SNL have been on hiatus since May. Upcoming seasons of streaming favorites like Hacks and Big Mouth are indefinitely delayed. Abbott Elementary, Ghosts, and just about every other network sitcom has been pushed off the fall schedule. The good news is, there are plenty of funny shows already on streaming services (that you can enjoy with the blessing of the unions, which have yet to call for consumer boycotts). I don’t just mean moldy standbys like Friends and The Office. Hulu’s This Fool, which debuted last year, is one of the most consistently hilarious shows on TV. And its full, 10-episode second season arrives on the platform on July 28.
As in many classic sitcoms, the premise is simple. Co-creator and stand-up comic Chris Estrada stars as Julio Lopez, a 30-year-old South Central L.A. native still living at home with his mom (Laura Patalano) and grandma (Julia Vera) while working for a nonprofit, Hugs Not Thugs, that reorients ex-gang members for the straight world. His cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones) happens to be a former gang member, who has just been released from prison after a long sentence. A nerdy kid who grew up to be a repressed, self-abnegating adult, Julio has nothing but bad memories of Luis, who used to bully him. But they’re forced into close proximity anyway, because Luis has nowhere to go but his aunt’s house and nothing to do but Hugs Not Thugs.
“This fool” is a term of grudging affection as well as a pejorative, and a similar mix of comical exasperation, tough love, and good-natured ribbing defines both the cousins’ relationship and the tone of the show. For Julio, who’s stuck in an on-again-off-again cycle with his longtime girlfriend, Maggie (Michelle Ortiz), and risks aging into a lefty crank like his boss, Minister Payne (the great Michael Imperioli), the incorrigible Luis is a well-timed shock to the status quo. And for Luis, Julio is a whiny pain in the ass who just might pester him into getting his life back on track.
Estrada cleverly reverses their predicaments by the beginning of Season 2. Now, Luis has a job as a security guard at a men’s formalwear shop—and an unequivocally single Julio is also unemployed after Payne tries and spectacularly fails to peddle his sexual services to a couple of billionaire benefactors in exchange for a crucial donation to the perennially broke Hugs Not Thugs. At least he’s finally moved out of his mom’s house… and into the grimy, illegal garage apartment that Luis rents from a local character, Don Emilio (Ramón Franco). The neighbors are more bothered by Emilio’s rooster, whose crowing wakes them up at the crack of dawn.
The best comedies can be incredibly smart and gloriously stupid at once. This Fool strikes an ideal balance, grounding its central odd couple in the vividly specific dynamics of a working-class L.A. neighborhood where gangs and poverty persist, good jobs are hard to find, and cultural tensions can flare up between nonwhite communities as Black families live side-by-side with Latin American immigrants. Social consciousness is baked into the Hugs Not Thugs story line; this is a show about second chances. And the characters are richly observed, from Patalano’s obsessively frugal Esperanza to Luis, a reactive schemer whose soft center is always visible beneath his tough exterior thanks to a standout performance from Quiñones.
Instead of starting with an agenda and stirring in jokes, Estrada lets his commentary come out organically, through plots that reflect the daily absurdities of urban life and humor whose target is often the rich and amoral. Scenarios range from purposely banal (one Season 2 episode opens with a pair of white office drones puzzling over what to write in a retirement card for Esperanza, who’s cleaned their space for 23 years) to the borderline surrealism of an excellent two-part episode that finds Julio and Luis taken hostage in a bodega robbery. (Julio’s bored mom and grandma eventually show up to spectate.) The comedy is both gleefully, raunchily physical—the size of Payne’s, er, endowment is a running joke—and weirdly observant. “You look like you eat oven-baked chips,” one character scoffs at Julio, and he really does.
If the challenge of a debut season is to establish compelling characters, a vividly realized social world, and a distinctive voice while also moving the story along, then it’s in the follow-up that a show must prove its potential for longevity. Like Reservation Dogs and The Bear (to name two of the most acclaimed comedies of the current decade), This Fool uses its second season to capitalize on the character development it accomplished in the first, remixing the ensemble into new configurations, adjusting the backdrop, and devoting whole episodes to individual supporting players. Story lines focused on the cousins’ love lives can feel a little too familiar; the female characters could use some more depth. But when the show is in its sweet spot, with Julio and Luis and sometimes Payne busting each other’s chops and getting in their own way, it’s as funny as anything you’re likely to watch in this cursed year for comedy.
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