‘This Fool’ Review: Hulu’s Endearing South L.A.-Set Odd Couple Comedy

There’s a scene in the first episode of Hulu’s This Fool that lays out in efficient detail just what sort of dynamic we’re dealing with here. It’s morning in the Lopez household, and Julio (series co-creator Chris Estrada) is indulging in his morning coffee ritual: hand-ground beans, a gooseneck kettle, a Chemex. His cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones), meanwhile, dumps a pile of instant coffee into a mug, shoves it into the microwave, and calls it a day.

Theirs is the sort of odd-couple relationship that’s been sustaining comedy since at least, well, The Odd Couple — and it’s one winning enough here to keep This Fool coasting on an even keel through the mean(ish) streets of South L.A.

This Fool

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The Bottom Line

Laid-back and funny.

Airdate: Friday, August 12 (Hulu)
Cast: Chris Estrada, Frankie Quiñones, Michael Imperioli, Michelle Ortiz, Laura Patalano, Julia Vera
Executive producers: Chris Estrada, Pat Bishop, Jake Weisman, Matt Ingebretson, Jonathan Groff, Fred Armisen

As This Fool begins, Julio is in a comfortable, if slightly dispiriting, rut. At 30, he’s still living with his mother Esperanza (Laura Patalano) and grandmother Maria (Julia Vera) in his childhood bedroom, in part because his job at Hugs Not Thugs (“the fifth-largest gang-rehabilitation center in LA!” he boasts) doesn’t pay all that well. In his free time, he carries on a nebulous friends-with-benefits relationship with his childhood sweetheart Maggie (an irresistibly entertaining Michelle Ortiz), who like seemingly everyone else in his life has no qualms about walking all over him. The first time we see her, she’s driving off in the car she “borrowed” from him without asking.

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Meanwhile, Luis is Julio’s polar opposite: a tough former gang member who’s spent the last eight years in prison “for doing dumb shit,” leaving behind a furious ex-fiancée and a trail of former buddies more interested in getting back the $20 he owes them than in resuming any real friendship with him. Julio’s connections land the freshly released Luis a spot in the Hugs Not Thugs program, to Julio’s self-righteous satisfaction and Luis’ irritation — the latter is less than thrilled to be enduring group therapy and cupcake baking lessons under the guidance of his “punk ass bitch” younger cousin.

The Fool‘s very premise can’t help but bring it up against some harsh realities, and the series doesn’t exactly shy away. In the premiere, Hugs Not Thugs director Payne (Michael Imperioli, who gets funnier and funnier as the character gets more and more harried) makes a point of railing against “the corrupt, for-profit prison industrial complex put in place by our racist, classist government”; a later plotline about Payne courting wealthy donors will underline just how twisted the dynamic between those making money off the system and those exploited by it can be. Over ten half-hour episodes, the season touches on gun violence and income inequality, skewers billionaire philanthropists and Ronald Reagan.

But This Fool approaches all of it with an easy laugh, never taking itself or anything else all that seriously. Its shot at Reagan comes in the form of a bizarre, vaguely sexual dream in which the former president coos “I like to do bad things” before launching into a list of his crimes: destabilizing Central America, creating the crack epidemic, ignoring the AIDS crisis. Luis tearfully opens up to his fellow Huggers about his struggles readjusting to civilian life — by comparing himself to his favorite comedy character, Austin Powers. “Dr. Evil stole that fool’s mojo, just like the California prison system took my mojo,” he reflects sadly. “I used to think that movie was a comedy. But now I know. It’s a tragedy.”

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It also leaves plenty of room for just plain silliness. This Fool will giggle at bodily functions and crotch kicks, borrow cheesy PSA language or horror movie jump scares for the hell of it, build entire storylines around the perils of commercial-grade toilet paper or enormous penises. In less successful moments, especially at the start of the season, its sense of humor can seem not just juvenile but stale. Luis sometimes comes off not like a guy who’s been away for a few years but an actual time traveler from 2005 who needs to be informed that gay jokes aren’t cool anymore, catcalling has been replaced by Tinder and Tobey Maguire is no longer Spider-Man.

Even then, though, the series is blessed with a firm grasp of who these characters are and what makes them tick. Quiñones is equal parts obnoxious and charming as Luis, like the class clown who never did figure out when to get serious. Estrada’s Julio is (amusingly) exhausting in his own way, so enamored of his own righteousness that he’s easily manipulated by compliments about what a good guy he is. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is their total lack of interest in self-examination; at one point, the guys try out therapy only to dismiss it as being “for losers” once the insights get too real.

But if This Fool isn’t much interested in hugging and learning, it still lands more sweet than sour thanks to the genuine affection coursing through its cast of characters — albeit genuine affection frequently bound up in ancient grudges, petty disagreements and misguided ideas, in the way family bonds so often are. On the occasion of his 31st birthday, Julio tries to hide in his room away from all his loved ones, all the better to stew in self-pity over the disappointment that his life doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Luis takes it upon himself to show him a good time anyway, even if he and the other Huggers have to swarm Julio’s car like a horde of zombies while yelling birthday well-wishes at him. It’s a gesture equal parts hilariously misguided and oddly touching. It’s the likable appeal of This Fool in a nutshell.

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