In the first scene of Idiotsitter, incubated as a Comedy Central web series last year and making its television debut this Thursday, Gene (Workaholics’s Jillian Bell) is drunkenly soliciting cops for sex on the side of road while riding a stolen pony and bleeding from the head. It would be fair to say that Idiotsitter is not a show that is interested in understatement.
Co-creators, writers, stars, and fellow former Groundlings Charlotte Newhouse and Jillian Bell play straight-laced Billie and out-of-control Gene (“like Eugene Levy – just the Gene part!”), a millennial female odd couple forced together by circumstance, and also the terms of Gene’s probation agreement. Gene (Bell) is a spoiled but charmingly well-meaning woman-child who’s grown up with no expectations and behaves accordingly. Billie (Newhouse), meanwhile, is her uptight polar opposite. A Harvard-educated hyper-achiever with a graduate degree and a prim affection for headbands, she is a woman who is – on the surface, at least – together in all the ways that Gene is not.
They are people who might both be happier if they hadn’t met. But – and here is perhaps the most realistic element of the show’s gloriously absurd premise – the economy works in mysterious ways. Unemployed and drowning in student debt, Billie responds to a job posting to babysit a seven-year-old. “I taught in grad school, so I could tutor her!” Billie tells Gene’s jovially negligent father (Stephen Root, logically in a karate uniform) at her interview. “Oh, that’s perfect,” he agrees. “I mean, she has to pass her GED. That’s part of the deal I worked out with the judge.” And so it is revealed that the fictional seven-year-old is actually the chronologically adult Gene, who appears, glowing with child-like wonder, wearing a sweatshirt with “dong” and a down arrow scrawled on it in sharpie.
From here, the pieces fall into place as dictated by the rules of comedy: Billie, shocked, will try not to take the job; Billie, desperate, will end up taking the job. In various permutations, Gene, stuck in the family mansion on house arrest, will spend the season doing outrageously ill-advised things while wearing outrageously ill-advised outfits, and will maybe acquire some sense of personal responsibility along the way; long-suffering straight man Billie will be endlessly frustrated, but will likely learn some things about becoming a more fun, less rigid person. Diametrically opposed but similarly naive, they’re perfect foils for each other: odd couples are a time-tested hijinks formula for a reason.
Despite the much-discussed comedic rise of the “woman-child,” there aren’t all that many female characters who are full-scale, Billy Madison-style disasters (the eponymous train wreck in Trainwreck, for example, also had a high-powered job and a swanky-by-my-standards apartment). Gene is one of them. Thanks to the show’s aggressively madcap tone, she’s untethered from from the stifling narrative confines of plausibility – there are virtually no limits to the myriad ways she can be out of control. In the first episode, Gene, assisted by her sweetly gross stoner sidekick Chet (Steve Berg), casually “hoofies” Billie’s drink (a hoofie is half roofie, half horse tranquilizer) to help her have fun, and is genuinely surprised when Billie wakes up from a coma and is a little bit upset about the whole thing. (Whether this joke works for you is a decent indicator of whether you’ll like the show.) In the second episode, which focuses on Gene’s academic, er, pursuits, we learn that she has never read a book and also might not be totally sure what one is.
It would be easy for a series as broad as Idiotsitter to feel totally unhinged – what works in web-sized doses doesn’t necessarily translate to full 22-minute episodes, and, as Bell and Newhouse said themselves, the bread and butter of the show hasn’t changed much since it was picked up to series. And it’s true that if you have a limited tolerance for uninhibited (if meticulously detailed) silliness, well, this probably isn’t your show: the plots, like many of the characters, are so over-the-top as to feel only tangentially related to reality. But there are enough elements of truth in Idiotsitter to keep it just barely grounded – distill it down to its most sentimental core, and you get the story of two very flawed people, whose lives aren’t working out as planned, trying to deal with each other. It’s not that there’s no darkness simmering under the surface of the show; Billie, for example, spends her time avoiding debt collectors; Gene worships her father, who mostly ignores her. It’s just that, unlike any number of less zany series, Idiotsitter doesn’t seem terribly interested in staring into it when there are so many ball jokes to make.
But then, you don’t watch Idiotsitter for its plot or its characters or its insights into the human condition (it is, again, a show called Idiotsitter). Even the premise feels secondary. The reason you watch is for the incredibly invested performances of the two leads. Gene bounds through life with the well-meaning enthusiasm and judgment of a spoiled Irish Setter, but Bell – master of the micro facial expression – gives her just enough self-awareness to allow for the possibility of progress. When she apologizes to Billie for hoofie-ing her drink, her vulnerability is funny precisely because it’s disarming. As Billie, Newhouse has had slightly less to work with so far – she may set up the pins, but Bell is usually the one who gets to knock them down – but her Billie is already more than a requisite counterweight to Gene’s stunted mania. As Newhouse plays her, there are glimmers that she may not be all that different from Gene after all, the flip side of the same bizarro coin.
Gleefully low-brow, Idiotsitter revels in its own carefully crafted brand of stupidity. It is a show that works best if you allow yourself to surrender to its off-the-rails charms. Even if you are a zany-averse person, their sense of fun is contagious.